Tuesday, January 15, 2002

By critically contrasting the world's apathy towards Robert Mugabe's despotism in Zimbabwe with eighties-era global enthusiasm for ending apartheid in South Africa, Slate's Anne Applebaum once again demonstrates her remarkable geopolitical naivete. Of course the world was willing to organize boycotts and diplomatic sanctions against Pretoria back then; it was cheap, easy, morally heartwarming, and not entirely unlikely to be effective. After all, South Africa was being run by an affluent middle-class elite vulnerable both to moral arguments and to checkbook coercion--the perfect targets for an international campaign of sacrifice-free symbolic measures.

Zimbabwe, on the other hand, is being run by a brutal dictator who is quite happy to slaughter thousands of his subjects and pitilessly impoverish the rest in order to maintain his iron grip on power. Boycotts, diplomatic sanctions and other mind tricks will not work on this Jedi; the only way to persuade him to step down is to show him the other end of the gun he's so ready to use on his countrymen. And how many soldiers' lives are the world's democracies willing to put in jeopardy to effect what may turn out (depending on the decency of Mugabe's eventual successor) to be a disappointingly small improvement in the quality of life of the average Zimbabwean?

Western interventionism comes in two flavors: self-interested and purely altruistic. Only the former can muster enough domestic support in a democracy to motivate genuine sacrificial effort (read: military action), and either variety will be shunned in any event unless its chances of success are substantial. If there were any hope that earnest protest marches and UN-sponsored sanctions might sway Robert Mugabe, I'm sure that the world's Anne Applebaums would be organizing some as we speak. But apart from Ms. Applebaum herself, the ranks of such doe-eyed innocents are understandably quite thin.

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