- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

President Bush disappointed us while in South Africa on Wednesday. Perhaps succumbing to bad counsel of his diplomatic advisers, Mr. Bush toned down his once tough line on Zimbabwe, by failing to hold South African President Thabo Mbeki to a firmer stance against Zimbabwe’s oppressor-in-chief Robert Mugabe. This is a shame, because only Mr. Mbeki, the power broker in the region, has the African clout to effectively pressure Mr. Mugabe to step down.

Kicking off his African tour with a meek start, Mr. Bush said Wednesday during a press conference with Mr. Mbeki: “I do not have any intention of second-guessing his tactics, we share the same outcome,” adding, “I think Mr. Mbeki can be an ‘honest broker.’ ” His comment was far from accurate. Mr. Mbeki’s so-called quiet diplomacy toward Mr. Mugabe has been dubbed silent diplomacy in Africa, because of its ineffectiveness. It is also glaringly disproportionate to the scale and cause of Zimbabwe’s crisis.

On the eve of the Bush-Mbeki press conference, the South African president said that the Zimbabwean government and opposition “are talking,” adding, “There are discussions, and I’m quite sure they will find a solution.” But the leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, said Mr. Mbeki’s comments were categorically false, since there has been “no politically engagement” between the two parties. Mr. Mbeki’s comment outraged many Zimbabweans, who claim the South African president was shrugging off their despair.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mugabe was measurably emboldened by Mr. Bush’s backpeddling. Zimbabwe’s official newspaper, the Herald, said Mr. Bush made “a loud climb-down by a president all along misled.” Fortunately, Mr. Bush was sufficiently roused by the Herald’s “report” and dropped his game of patty cake with Mr. Mbeki.

In Botswana yesterday, Mr. Bush said, “It’s a shame that the [Zimbabwean] economy has gotten so weak and soft … and that the weakness in the economy is directly attributable to bad governance.” He added, “Therefore we will continue to speak out for democracy in Zimbabwe.” While Mr. Bush looked quite the statesman in South Africa, he seemed to remember in Botswana that plain talk is preferable to minced words, and Stetsons to pinstripes.

For the people of Zimbabwe, there is much at stake. Mr. Mugabe’s murderous favoritism and haphazard land reform program has caused a 90 percent drop in production in large-scale commercial farming since the 1990s, the U.N. food organization said in a report last month. Once the bread basket of southern Africa, Ziimbabwe now depends on food aid to feed more than 5 million people, or about half the population. Annual inflation is above 200 percent and three-quarters of Zimbabweans are jobless.

Unlike the crisis in Liberia, where African leaders have called for U.S. involvement, Africa must deal with Zimbabwe. If Mr. Mbeki fails to take a more active role with Zimbabwe in the future, Mr. Bush must not mince his words.

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