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Outposts of Tyranny: Zimbabwe

Martin Meredith
Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; 12:00 PM

In January, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to consider her nomination for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice named the nations of Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Burma, North Korea, and Zimbabwe as "outposts of tyranny."

Rice's nomination speech may have provided insight into her foreign policy agenda for the next four years. "We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom," she said. Rice Stays Close to Bush Policies In Hearing (The Post, Jan. 18)

Martin Meredith, author of Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe, was online Tuesday, April 12, at 12 p.m. ET to discuss the recent developments in Zimbabwe and the country's relations with the U.S.

Meredith is the author of seven books on Africa. He was a foreign correspondent for the London Observer and Sunday Times, then a research fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford.

This is one discussion in a six part series focusing on the nations Secretary of State Condolezza Rice named "outposts of tyranny" and the specific issues that have caused tensions with the U.S. Authors, journalists, representatives from foreign policy think tanks, and professors will take questions from readers. A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Martin Meredith: Martin Meredith is online ready to take your questions


Philadelphia, Pa.: Why has South African President Mbeki been providing cover for President Mugabe's oppression? Is this hurting Mbeki's standing in the West?

Martin Meredith: President Mbeki argues that the only sensible course of action for South Africa to take is to adopt a policy of what he calls 'quiet diplomacy'. Though this policy has largely failed in making any impression on Mugabe, he still stands by it. But his failure to use more forceful measures to bring Mugabe into line has undoubtedly harmed his standing in the West.Western governments believe that only South Africa has the means to oblige Mugabe to alter course.But they continue to restrain their criticism of Mbeki as there are few alternative options.


Washington, D.C.: Rhodesians would be very correct in saying "I told you so" about Mugabe. Will the press and the international community ever acknowledge the validity of this observation? More important, will this observation have any impact on present and future policy decisions made by the U.K., the U.S., and others?

Martin Meredith: Ian Smith took Rhodesia into a civil war in order to protect white rule and thereby opened the way for Mugabe to take power.In many ways, Mugabe is a direct result of Ian Smith's policies. Smith has many opportunities to come to a negotiated settlement before the war took root. So for white Rhodesians to argue now that they told the world not to trust Mugabe carries little weight.Many others distrusted Mugabe at the time. I was one of them.But for several years after he took power in 1980 many old Rhodesians living in Zimbabwe were happy to refer to him as 'good old Bob'. The end result has been disastrous. But I don't think that any historian will give any credence to your observation. It certainly doesn't have any effect on policymakers in Washington or London.


Washington, D.C.: Good morning!

What can the average American do to help the people of Zimbabwe and effect change in that country's government?

Many thanks!

Martin Meredith: Sadly, very little.A variety of Western governments have tried to get Mugabe to change course. South Africa declines to use its ability to bring pressure to bear. Individuals are left watching the tragic picture of a country sliding into ruin.There's virtually no leverage available.


Arlington, Va.: Mr Meredith - is Zimbabwe in the tyrrany-exporting business yet? I'm afraid that Mugabe is going to follow in the footsteps of Hugo Chavez.

Martin Meredith: Mugabe runs his own version of dictatorship specially adapted to Zimbabwe's conditions. He's never shown any interest in exporting it elsewhere. Sadly, it's a fairly common occurence in Africa.


Arlington, Va.: It's a historical irony; Mbeki's policy of 'quiet diplomacy' toward Zimbabwe echoes the old US policy of 'constructive engagement' toward the former South African regime, a policy that presumably Mbeki opposed at the time.

Martin Meredith: Yes,there is an exact parallel between Mbeki's 'quiet diplomacy' and the US policy of 'constructive engagement' towards South Africa in the 1980s. Another irony is that it was the South African leader, John Vorster, who used South African pressure to force the old Rhodesian leader, Ian Smith, to give way to majority rule. Twenty years later, Mbeki refuses to use the same arsenal at his disposal to force Mugabe to change course.


Ottawa, Canada: Do you feel that the Commonwealth could exert any meaningful pressure on Mr.Mugabe?

Martin Meredith: The Commonwealth made various efforts to force Mugabe to change course. The result was that Mugabe left the Commonwealth.No further Commonwealth pressure is likely to succeed.


Washington, D.C.: My blacks friends were surprised I knew more about Africa than they did because I studied Rhodesia. Do you think black Americans understand Africa?

Martin Meredith: There's very good book written by a black American about Africa: It's called: Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, and the author is Keith B.Richburg.Richburg believes that most black Americans have no real understanding of Africa - any more than most other foreigners have. It's not a question of colour. It's a different world altogether.


Maryland: Is the UK discreetly providing Mugabe bodyguards? The people around him seemed to be ex-SAS men.

Martin Meredith: Mugabe has just fought an election attacking Britain and its prime minister,Tony Blair, at every opportunity.He regards Britain as his Number One Enemy. The idea that burly ex-SAS men are protecting him is a bit fanciful.


Lyme, Conn.: Do you believe Secretary Rice's comments mean that the United States is going to become actively involved, or will it remain primarily be a verbal paper tiger on African affairs? What role do you believe the United States should play in directly or indirectly assisting people facing starvation, genocide, and repression?

Martin Meredith: Zimbabwe is low on the US list of foreign priorities.President Bush has previously said that he is content to follow the lead set by South Africa's Thabo Mbeki.Mbeki prefers a policy of 'quiet diplomacy' towards Zimbabwe. In those circumstances I don't see the US taking a more active approach.

But I believe that the US should use its power in certain circumstances to intervene in cases of starvation,genocide and repression, provided it acts in conjunction with other governments following a similar course. Joint action is a formidable weapon.But in all such cases, the US should always work to give maximum exposure to the nefarious activities of tyrannical governments.Publicity is also a formidable weapon.


New York: What is your take on the vote there this week?

Martin Meredith: Another rigged election which will keep Zimbabwe in the Western list of pariah states and condemn it to further decline and decay.


Munich, Germany: While on vacation in Botswana, I had a chance to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe with a couple of white, expatriate Zimbabweans. They felt that for each year that Mugabe stays in power, it will take tens years to undo the damage that he does on the infrastructure and on the inhabitants of Zimbabwe.

Mugabe has successfully played the colonial card during his re-election campaigns, casting the MDC as a puppet of the United Kingdom, and yet he runs to shake the hand of Prince Charles in Rome after the Pope's funeral. Why does Mugabe continue to garner the respect of his African neighbours, especially Mbeki in South Africa?

Martin Mereith: Mugabe is respected by other southern African leaders for his role as a liberation hero freeing Zimbabwe from white minority rule. This counts for far more than his misdeeds as a murderous dictator. African leaders have a long tradition of sticking together in the name of group solidarity, particularly when facing Western criticism.

I'm afraid the damage Mugabe has inflicted on Zimbabwe will take decades to reverse.


The "Outposts of Tyranny" Series
North Korea


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