Thursday, June 19, 2008

Zimbabwe: A Proposal

(Revised version of a cross-posted comment at Matt Yglesias' blog)

I apologize for the lack of blogging lately - the baby's been keeping me busy, plus I've had a case of writer's block.

In any event, the rapidly deteroriating situation in Zimbabwe has inevitably resulted in the question: what, if anything, should be done?

In my view, this is a clear case where the need to defend others against the brutal oppression of their government - which the people have actively and openly fought against - justifies humanitarian intervention of some sort. But what sort? Sanctions don't work (and if you subscribe to a free trade theory of democracy, as I do, are actually counterproductive); resolutions, even when allowed to pass by Russian and China, are toothless; the US military is stretched to thin to attempt yet a third military occupation, and any direct American or Western military intervention would lead to (justified) cries of neo-colonialism/imperialism; and eliminating sanctions would have little effect because Mugabe would probably not take advantage of the eliminated sanctions in a way that would rapidly increase freedom (ie, there would not be a sudden restoration of free trade). Even if Mugabe did re-open Zimbabwe's economy to the world, the re-opening of the country would still require years before it would result in a hypothetical restoration of freedoms, during which much more political oppression and murder would occur.

The only answer that really makes sense to me is the answer that most goes against every fiber of my libertarian being: "regime change." Before I get chastized for this idea by the entire non-interventionist wing of the libertarian movement, let me make clear that I am NOT arguing that the US military should undertake this venture. Indeed, I believe doing so would be extremely ill-conceived and would primarily result in driving support to Mugabe and further legitimizing already valid concerns of neo-colonialism and imperialism. Instead, I advocate seeking intervention to remove Mugabe, by force if necessary, by either the African Union or by independent African nations.

I believe this because, if ever there was a country where "regime change" would actually work, it would be Zimbabwe. First, it is a country with a relatively weak military and an increasingly unpopular leader. But, then again, compared to the US, Iraq's military was very weak and Saddam Hussein was obviously deeply unpopular amongst the majority of Iraq's population. Yet Iraq was an extraordinarily bad candidate for "regime change," as we have found out, and as I frankly believed at the time. The difference, however, is that in Zimbabwe's recent past, it had a relatively strong civil society (Mugabe's turn to totalitarianism occured largely in this decade), the remnants of with are apparently still in enough operation to permit someone like Tsvangirai to pose a threat to Mugabe. Furthermore, intervention by a coalition of neighboring, non-Western nations would largely overcome any local fears about neo-colonialism and imperialism. In essence, what I am advocating is what should have been done in Rwanda.

As I said, the key factor here is that Zimbabwe has or until relatively recently had a relatively strong civil society. A strong civil society is usually a pre-requisite for liberal democracy, even if that civil society is largely non-politically based - this is why, say, Spain's transition to liberal democracy was rather smooth, while the transition in much of Eastern Europe and the former USSR has been marked by outright civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, low-scale civil war and a decade of authoritarianism in Georgia, a reversion to authoritarianism in Russia, widespread corruption in Ukraine, etc.

My point is this: at the moment, Zimbabwe would not fall into chaos like Iraq did if Mugabe was forcibly removed and his army disarmed. But the more that he continues his crackdown, the weaker Zimbabwe's civil society will be as practicing the freedom of association becomes increasingly dangerous. Mugabe's crackdown the last few weeks is designed to accomplish precisely the effect of destroying free association and civil society. In so doing, he will not only make open dissent impossible, but he will have the perhaps unintentional effect of making a peaceful succession to anyone of whom he does not approve nearly impossible. So the longer the world allows Mugabe to remain in power, the less outside military intervention will be a viable option and the more chaotic will be the aftermath of his or his successors' eventual fall from power.

But again, neither the US nor any other Western nation can or should be involved in any military intervention except perhaps to provide logistical support. Anything more would simply have the effect of feeding into deep-seated resentment of colonialism that would rally support to Mugabe. Instead, I would argue that we should do what we can to encourage a large-scale intervention by either the African Union (unlikely to succeed, unfortunately) or by Zimbabwe's neighbors and other African countries. If that results in the successful removal of Mugabe, then a UN peacekeeping force would be appropriate and would probably need to remain for only a brief period of time, perhaps a year or two.