- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

The government of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said yesterday that President Bush’s endorsement of low-key diplomacy to resolve the country’s political crisis was a “loud climbdown” from previous U.S. demands for out-and-out regime change.

The Mugabe government said Mr. Bush’s strong statement in support of South African efforts to broker a deal with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) amounted to a repudiation of the MDC’s tactics and of the more confrontational approach pushed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell last month.

Mr. Bush, talking to reporters in Botswana yesterday, said he remained committed to democratic reform in Zimbabwe, blaming the country’s economic and political crises on “bad governance.”

But Mr. Bush’s tone during a press conference Wednesday with South African President Thabo Mbeki was sharply muted compared with that adopted by Mr. Powell in a New York Times editorial late last month.

Mr. Powell said the time of the “violent misrule” of the Mugabe regime “had come and gone,” and called on South Africa and other regional powers to play a role “that reflects the urgency of the situation.”

The MDC has been sharply critical of South Africa’s failure to take a more activist role in Zimbabwe’s crisis. Britain, the former colonial power in Zimbabwe, also has pressed Washington and European countries to isolate and sanction Mr. Mugabe and his top aides.

But Zimbabwe’s Department of Information and Publicity said in a statement that Mr. Bush’s “fleeting and perfunctory reference” to Zimbabwe during the press conference Wednesday was “a loud climbdown by a president all along misled, but who now leaves the region better enlightened about the issues at stake.”

Appearing with Mr. Mbeki in the middle of a five-day Africa trip, Mr. Bush offered a surprisingly effusive endorsement of the South African leader’s cautious efforts in neighboring Zimbabwe.

Mr. Bush called Mr. Mbeki an “honest broker” and the international “point man” in resolving Zimbabwe’s political standoff, even though Mr. Mbeki’s government has rejected any suggestion of ousting Mr. Mugabe and has come under sharp criticism from MDC leaders for failing to condemn the Harare government’s attacks on civil liberties and its mishandling of the collapsing economy.

“I don’t have any intention of second-guessing [Mr. Mbekis] tactics,” Mr. Bush said. “We want the same outcome.”

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who faces treason charges lodged by the government, said yesterday that Mr. Bush had been “misled” by Mr. Mbeki’s assurances that real negotiations were under way in Zimbabwe.

“Statements claiming that there is dialogue going on are patently false and mischievous,” he told reporters in Harare, the capital.

“The Mugabe regime has remained intractable and sustained an arrogant and defiant program of violence, torture, murder, rape and all manner of crimes against humanity,” he added.

The MDC leader, however, softened his criticism in a later statement, saying the opposition was “heartened by the sense of urgency displayed by President Mbeki and Bush” in breaking Zimbabwe’s political impasse.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also has worked to rally international opposition to the Mugabe regime.

“We must deal with the problem in Zimbabwe, because it threatens to blight and destroy the lives of many people, not only in that country, but all over south of Africa,” Mr. Blair recently told Parliament.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell, in separate press briefings yesterday, insisted that the U.S. demand for political overhaul in Zimbabwe had not diminished.

“It’s a shame that the [Zimbabwean economy] has gotten so weak and soft,” Mr. Bush said.

“It’s a shame for southern Africa, and the weakness in the economy is directly attributable to bad governance. Therefore, we will continue to speak out for democracy in Zimbabwe,” he added.

John Prendergast, a Zimbabwe expert for the International Crisis Group, said Mr. Bush’s praise of Mr. Mbeki was a calculated gamble that Pretoria will take a more activist approach if the United States pulls back.

“Essentially, we’re betting that if we tone it down, they’ll turn it up,” he said.

Bill Fletcher, president of the TransAfrica Forum, said the harsh criticism by Britain and the United States in the past had proven counterproductive.

“Their comments ended up polarizing the situation in Zimbabwe,” he said. “They were used by Mugabe to paint the opposition as in the pocket of Western interests.”

He said Mr. Bush was only recognizing reality in calling Mr. Mbeki the point man for a diplomatic solution. But Mr. Fletcher added that he doubted the soothing words at the press conference had papered over wide differences between the two leaders on how to handle the crisis in Zimbabwe.

Mr. Prendergast said it was still not clear whether South Africa was prepared to take a tougher approach toward Mr. Mugabe, or whether Mr. Mbeki could overcome his doubts about the MDC.

“If the Bush administration truly supports the current South African policy on Zimbabwe, nothing is going to happen,” Mr. Prendergast said.

He said Mr. Bush’s “over-the-top” praise of Mr. Mbeki’s role in the region reflected in part tensions between advisers in the National Security Council and the State Department, with the former skeptical of the latter’s tougher line against Mr. Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.

In what appeared to be the first test of South Africa’s new line, Mr. Mbeki failed even to mention the Zimbabwe crisis in a speech yesterday at a summit of the African Union in Maputo, Mozambique.

With Mr. Mugabe seated in the audience, Mr. Mbeki called on African governments to take a more active role in resolving the continent’s many conflicts, but did not name Zimbabwe as one of the countries requiring attention.

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