On June 27, Robert Mugabe stole an election. He did so in plain view of journalists, aid workers, diplomats and heads of state. His brutality before the vote resulted in the deaths of about 100 Zimbabweans, the detention of some 2,000, injury to 10,000 and the displacement of more than 200,000. His regime systematically burned down homes and tortured people who had the nerve to suggest they might choose a new President of Zimbabwe. Under Mugabe, life expectancy has dropped to 36 years.
The ruthlessness and savagery of Mugabe have given rise to two basic reactions in Africa and around the world: fruitless hand-wringing by committed multilateralists who want to solve the problem through "constructive engagement," and consequence-blind militarism by zealous moralists who call for regime change by force. Neither approach offers realistic hope for the people of Zimbabwe. Ending the Mugabe nightmare is still possible, but it will require a more radical diplomatic strategy than the world has tried so far.
The positions of both the multilateralists and the moralists start from flawed assumptions. The multilateralist camp claims to be disappointed that South African President Thabo Mbeki has failed to mediate a resolution to the crisis. But Mbeki is not a mediator; he is an ally to a dictator. And yet Western countries--aware that their criticisms of human rights abuses in the developing world have a neoimperialist ring to them--don't call out Mbeki on his partisanship. Instead, they confine their ritual condemnations to Mugabe, who cares more about staying in power than anybody else cares about removing him.
The moralists, for their part, have begun demanding the military overthrow of Mugabe. Many of them are neoconservatives motivated largely by the desire to ridicule multilateralism and resuscitate the so-called Bush Doctrine. Such voices conveniently forget that the Bush Doctrine has never actually been tried in practice. The war in Iraq was fought over alleged weapons of mass destruction, a contrived link to 9/11, oil, a father's unfinished legacy--but not as a humanitarian intervention.
The bigger problem with those who call for forcible regime change in Zimbabwe is not their faulty history; it is their utter indifference to consequences. Even if one could find a country prepared to invade Zimbabwe, such a war would probably cause Mugabe's bloodstained security forces (estimated to number 100,000) to butcher unarmed opposition politicians and their defenseless supporters and cause several million to flee to neighboring countries. It would also exacerbate the suspicions between countries in the north and those in the south, making it even more likely that developing countries (which account for the majority of U.N. member states) will dig in their heels in support of human rights abusers in Zimbabwe and beyond.
So what can be done? To start, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should appoint his predecessor, Kofi Annan, fresh from brokering a power-sharing deal for Kenya, as the U.N.'s envoy to Zimbabwe. One by one, those African and Western leaders who claim to be disgusted with Mugabe should announce that they bilaterally recognize the validity of the March 29 first-round election results, which showed the opposition winning 48% to 43%, though the margin was almost surely larger. The countries which do would make up the new "March 29 bloc" within the U.N. and would declare Morgan Tsvangirai the new President of Zimbabwe. They would then announce that Mugabe and the 130 leading cronies who have already been sanctioned by the West will not be permitted entry to their airports.
Tsvangirai and his senior aides should do as South Africa's African National Congress did throughout the 1960s and '70s: set up a government-in-exile and appoint ambassadors abroad--including to the U.N. That ambassador should be given forums for rebutting the ludicrous claims of the Zimbabwean and South African regimes.
If "the U.N." is disaggregated into its component parts, Mugabe's friends will be exposed. "June 27" countries will be those who favor electoral theft, while "March 29" countries will be those who believe that the Zimbabweans aren't the only ones who should stand up and be counted. This can be a recipe for gridlock in international institutions--but the gridlock won't get broken by lamenting its existence. It will get broken when the heads of state who back Mugabe are forced out into the open and when constructive engagement of the new President of Zimbabwe begins.