Moving out of the rut of poor U.S.-Zimbabwe relations

Aug 4, 2011

U.S. ambassador Charles Ray startled many Zimbabweans last week when he made an announcement of his government's official neutrality in the upcoming electoral match between ZANU-PF and the MDC. That is not only the correct position for the representative of a foreign government to take, it needed to be said because that neutrality by the U.S. government was far from obvious to many Zimbabweans, which is also why his statement was surprising. His speech may represent the best opportunity in many years for kick-starting bad relations that are unnecessary, and that serve neither country well.

Ray's speech about the future of relations between the U.S. and Zimbabwe was frank and well thought out, but another element that came out was how unusually calm, diplomatic and conciliatory it seemed for him.

That a diplomat being diplomatic could be so surprising is because of how childish had become the exchanges between Ray and prominent individuals in the Zimbabwe government and media. As Ray himself said, ''we were so steeped in our respective roles of sniping and accusing that we lost sight of the bigger, broader areas of collaboration and our mutual interests.''

This sniping had descended to such undignified, ridiculous extents that an onlooker could easily become more fascinated at the crudeness of both sides than focus on which one was 'right' or otherwise. It had become a long running fight of such bitterness that one could be forgiven for forgetting what the reasons for the fight were to begin with.
A lot has happened and changed since the US and other western countries decided that 'targeted sanctions' were their chosen way of expressing disapproval of the policies and actions of the Mugabe government, close to ten years ago now.

The Mugabe government has a long record of trying to thwart the democratic process when it sees the tide turning against it. But somehow 'democracy and human rights' always sounded unconvincing for the western governments' effective branding of the Mugabe government as a rogue regime, although many Zimbabweans had the same view. The US then and now has deep, close relations with many governments that don't even make any pretense of being democratic. 

Clearly one thing that set the Mugabe government apart from other strong-arm regimes was the expropriations of white farms. For all sorts of reasons, that was a type and magnitude of 'sin' that for the western world set the Mugabe government in a different league of badness than others. For better and for worse, that is no longer really a contestable issue.

The land reform effort; imperfect, violent and messy as it was, is pretty much a done deal, even if there remain many loose ends to tie up. No matter how much the U.S. and its friends may still disapprove of it, there is no broad-based sentiment by Zimbabweans for it to be reversed, so the western countries look a little out of it to continue that as a major reason for not doing business with the Mugabe government.

The 2008 election which Mugabe is widely thought to have lost was another reason for the west to express outrage with him. One of the reasons it sounds odd to hear Ray say 'The U.S. does not favor any one party over another in Zimbabwe' is because to many observers, Britain and the U.S. clearly showed their anti-Mugabe/anti-ZANUPF hand in that 2008 election in a way that was unseemly for foreign governments to do.     

Stolen election or not, the MDC party and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the victims of the corrupt, violent and democracy-thwarting electoral process of 2008, have made enough peace with that bit of history to join with their foes Mugabe and ZANU/PF in the present unity government. That flawed election could therefore not be a good reason for the U.S. and its friends to continue their open hostility to the Mugabe-led government of which Tsvangirai and the MDC are now a part.

None of these things sanitize the Mugabe government, but it certainly could not be said to be so much worse than many similar or worse ones the US has good relations with even today. The continued 'targeted sanctions' simply began to look very awkward and hard to justify.

Then there was the fact that they simply weren't achieving their intended aim of either toppling Mugabe or making him substantially change his words or deeds. If anything, they only inflamed already tense relations, and gave Mugabe a new 'anti-imperialist' propaganda plank.

The introduction of U.S. currency as official tender wiped away the hyperinflation that some might have hoped would help to push Mugabe towards the door. Help from the Chinese and the discovery of new diamond fields all helped to bring back the country from the economic brink. All this considerably weakened any potential the west hoped that their sanctions would combine with other pressures to push Mugabe out or tame him.

The economic stabilization gave Mugabe increasing strength and confidence to maintain a ''butt out of our affairs'' stance towards the west, particularly Britain and the U.S. Their sanctions against Mugabe's government remained and continued, but no one any longer had any illusions that they were serving any purpose other than to slightly inconvenience and greatly annoy those affected. Mugabe has actually seized on them to bolster his claim that he has long been under a sustained 'regime change' attack by Britain and the U.S.

To cut a long story short, the relations between the U.S. and Zimbabwe governments, like those between Britain and Zimbabwe, have long been at an impasse. Lots of hurling of insults and moralizing but no effective movement forward for many years.

The Mugabe government has throughout the impasse pretty much remained its old stubborn, repressive self. In response to its pressure not having the intended result, Ray and his two predecessors took an increasingly combative, interventionist approach to Zimbabwean affairs. This of course only incensed Mugabe more, causing ever more shrill denunciations of the U.S.and further worsening already poor relations. But so overdone were Ray and predecessors' militant style of 'diplomacy' many Zimbabweans, even those with little sympathy for Mugabe's government, began to question a foreign official's interference in their affairs that the Americans would find unacceptable in the U.S. It simply became counter-productive. 

Whatever has brought about the re-examination of the U.S. government's tactics, it is timely. The old hectoring attitude had long been overtaken by events, and it was neither helping Zimbabweans achieve any more 'human rights and democracy,' nor was it serving any purpose for the U.S. If anything it has thrown Zimbabwe deeper and tighter into the orbit of China, and further away from the western countries.

There is also the recognition that while Mugabe and ZANU-PF may well lose a free and fair election to Tsvangirai and the MDC, it is far from a given that this would be the end of their influence. An independent line in how the country progresses remains a deep and important undercurrent of the country's outlook beyond party affiliation, partly because of the unique history of how Zimbabwe achieved its independence. It was always wrong for the the west to assume Zimbabweans unhappy with ZANU-PF rule necessarily agree with the MDC's approach of being under the skirts of foreign benefactors.   

As the recent sabre-rattling by ZANU-PF aligned military men shows, a victorious MDC would for a good while also be under close scrutiny and suspicion of being 'puppets of the imperialists.' If the intention of western countries has been to help the MDC's efforts to win power as suggested by the Wikileaked cable of one of Ray's predecessors, their public pushiness probably only served to harden attitudes within ZANU-PF and allied power structures. It has made them doubt they could live with an MDC government, and confirms for them that the MDC were seen as more agreeable to a Britain and the U.S. who are seeking a more pliable government in power in Harare than Mugabe's ultra-nationalist, independent one.

It remains to be seen if the Mugabe government will interpret Ray's speech as a peace offering to be accepted as the start of rebuilding good relations. So paranoid has the Mugabe government become about British and US attitudes and intentions towards it that there will be suspicion that the conciliatory language is some kind of  cover for a new 'plot' against it. The government has survived through significant domestic and foreign pressure so is steeled to continue being tough and hostile. But the opening up of foreign credit that Zimbabwe is mostly closed off from, partly because of U.S. pressure, is a significant carrot the U.S. wields if its intention is to now see a normalization of relations.

The Mugabe government has much more of a deep-seated beef with the British government than it does with that of the U.S. If the U.S. adopted a hyper-active tone of censure to the Mugabe government out of support for British outrage at land expropriations from British-descended farmers, that no longer seems as principled a stance as it must have once seemed. It is time for the U.S. to relate with Zimbabwe, including the discussion of areas of difference or concern, out of mutual interest, rather than to be driven by distant third-party relations that are themselves in flux.

By his bold speech, Ray suggested that his country's relations with Zimbabwe may be coming out of the shadow of the deep British antipathy to Mugabe's government. This is as it should be. The differences between Britain and Zimbabwe are a separate, far more complex issue than those between the U.S. and Zimbabwe need to be.

These realities are not about white-washing Mugabe's many faults. The U.S. and any other country has a right to decide which countries to relate to, but it was always absurd to have sanctions on Mugabe and his supporters while having good relations with equally or more repressive governments like those of Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Pakistan, Gabon and so forth. The U.S. government might have arguably had more influence on Mugabe's repressive tendencies by taking a different, more calm and nuanced approach than Britain's understandably shrill and emotional kith and kin-derived tone.

It will be interesting to see what the Mugabe government's reaction to Ray's proffered olive branch will be.  

The Zimbabwe Review


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