An Unfriendly Act

South Africa, argues Michael Gerson, formerly President George Bush’s chief speechwriter, now a Washington Post columnist, has become a “rogue democracy” under President Thabo Mbeki. As exhibit A, he cites a private letter from Mbeki to Bush, dated late April, regarding Zimbabwe.

The contents were leaked to him by the White House, an unfriendly and quite possibly illegal act. He summarizes them thus in his May 28 column: “Rather than coordinating strategy to end Zimbabwe’s nightmare, Mbeki criticized the US, in a text packed with exclamation points, for taking sides against President Mugabe’s government and disrespecting the views of the Zimbabwean people.”

He then quoted two US officials.  Mbeki told Bush Zimbabwe “was  not our business” and “to butt out, that Africa belongs to him,” one said. The other added some commentary: “Mbeki lost it; it was outrageous.” Having not had access to the letter myself, I cannot comment on the use of exclamation points, but the general thrust, if accurately conveyed, seems anything but outrageous. What business does the US have in Zimbabwe nowadays?

Not much, in the view of Beatrice Mtetwa, the formidable Zimbabwean human rights lawyer who represented New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak when he and a British colleague were arrested in April for committing journalism.  “Your governments can’t apply pressure,” she told the pair. “The British and Americans have negative influence here.”

London and Washington have negative influence because they have made it perfectly clear, for years, that they want regime change in Harare. They have openly sided  with the MDC and Morgan Tsvangirai. Given what Mugabe has done to the country,  their preference is understandable. But the choice does not belong to them.  It belongs to Zimbabwe’s voters.

On March 29, those voters chose change in an election Mbeki’s diplomacy helped protect from another round of theft by Mugabe. The issue ever since has been to see that their wishes are respected.  The US and UK have done little to assist this process. Rather, they have complicated it by reconfirming Mugabe’s belief, and the sympathy it generates, that he is courageously holding out against Zimbabwe’s recolonisation.

The US and UK have also seen to it that a Tsvangirai administration will have a difficult time if and when it does take office. Many Zimbabweans, including some particularly thuggish customers,  still worship Mugabe.  Reconciliation will be tough so long as they think Tsvangirai and the MDC were imposed on them from outside.

The only lasting solution in Zimbabwe, as Mbeki keeps saying, will be one crafted by Zimbabweans themselves with regional support. That probably means some kind of government of national unity after, or perhaps preempting, the presidential run-off scheduled for the end of this month.  Once the deals are done, US funding in support of the new government’s own reconstruction plans will be welcome. Until then, Bush should indeed butt out.

Gerson’s column exemplifies the difficulty Washington is having in coming to grips with what Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria  has called the “rise of the rest” in a “post-American” world.  Recall how Bush called Mbeki “my point man” on Zimbabwe a few years back.  Unconsciously or not, the American president was treating his South African counterpart as an agent of US foreign policy. The more Mbeki has shown he is no one’s surrogate, the more befuddled Washington has become.

Mbeki seeks a United Nations representative of the rising rest rather than the world as it was in 1946. Because the Security Council in its current form is not representative, he has used SA’s membership to limit its interventions.  He believes that Africa must, and can, sort out its own problems.  The way forward in situations like Zimbabwe and Sudan, he is convinced, is not to demonise the Mugabes and Bashirs but patiently to get inside their heads so that they become part of the solution, as the ANC did with the Nats. He is as determined as anyone that Iran should not have nuclear weapons  in defiance of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, but has been prepared to differ with the US and others on tactics.

For all of these supposed sins, a speechwriter who helped Bush lie his way into Iraq calls SA a “rogue democracy”. Pathetic, really.

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