WikiLeaks VII: Our Man in Zimbabwe Flatters His Way up the Foreign-Service Ladder

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the seventh in the series.

While some of the WikiLeaks documents dropped thus far offer lively writing and candid assessments worthy of a gossip magazine, others prove excruciating in the extreme. Take the sole document leaked thus far from the US embassy in Zimbabwe, for example.

Writing during the summer of 2007, then-Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell jotted down some final thoughts on Zimbabwean politics before leaving his post. His cliché-ridden prose, dripping with patriotic commitment, is enough to set the teeth of even George W. Bush’s speech writers on edge. The cable, preposterously entitled “The End is Nigh,” begins with a neat summary of where things stood three years ago [spelling errors left intact -- Ed.]:

My views can be stated simply as stay the course and prepare for change. Our policy is working and its helping to drive change here. What is required is simply the grit, determination and focus to see this through.

If only it were so simple! The key challenge, of course, that stands in the way is Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, a leader Dell paints as if pitching the super villain in a Hollywood script.

Rober Mugabe has survived so long because he is more clever and more ruthless than any other politician in Zimbabwe. To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactition and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalize the political dynamic and force everyone else to react to his agenda.

It may be worth pointing out that, with the exception of the “brilliant” part, it seems Dell’s description could have equally applied as much to then-president Bush as to Robert Mugabe. Nevertheless, Dell argues that like all action movie scoundrels, Mugabe suffers from several Achilles’ heels which will ultimately prove to be his undoing.

He is fundamentally hampered by several factors: his ego and belief in his own infallibility; his obsessive focus on the past as a justification for everything in the present and future; his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand); and his essentially short-term tactical style.

With not a trace of irony, Dell follows up immediately with the observation that Mugabe’s supposed weakness—a short-term tactical style—has done a pretty good job of “keep[ing] him in power for 27 years.” Short-term indeed. Dell also ignores the fact that the president is hardly alone in believing himself untouchable. Apparently the ambassador is not familiar with power of a healthy cult of personality. More interesting still is Dell’s seeming blindness to the powerful residue of Mugabe’s past glories. He seems to take Mugabe’s self-regard as important to the president alone, when in fact history still impacts the decision-making of foreign leaders—especially in the Global South—well-aware of his position as a liberation hero of the decolonization period.

In any event, Dell casts about with assertions of Mugabe’s imminent demise–predictions that have proven to be flat-out wrong. Still, he does a good job of protecting his predictions against the possibility of failure by blaming the US allies on the ground in Zimbabwe.

Dell doesn’t mince words about the political opposition to Mugabe in the country. He arrogantly notes that

I leave convinced that had we had different partner we could have achieved more already. But you have to play the hand you’re dealt. The current leadership..will require massive hand holding and assistance should they ever come to power.

On the subject of the country’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangarai, Dell has this to say:

Tsvangarai is a brave, committed man and, by and large, a democrat…But Tsvangarai is also a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him.

Whether Tsvanagarai is not readily open to advice generally, or just from the United States in particular, Dell doesn’t say. But he does find a cute, and actually appropriate, analogy to sum things up:

He is the indespensible element for opposition success, but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power. In short, he is a kind of Lech Walesa…Zimbabwe needs him, but should not rely on his executive abilities to lead the country’s recovery.

Of Dell’s other assessments, none are particularly interesting save one, but only for the reaction it provoked. Speaking of Zimbabwe’s Industry and Commerce Minister, Dell asserts that

Welshman Ncube has proven to be a deeply divisive and destructive player in the opposition ranks and the sooner he is pushed off the stage, the better. But he is useful to many, including the regime and South Africa, so is probably a cross to be borne for some time yet. The prospects for healing the rift within the MDC seem dim, which is a totally unnecessary self-inflicted wound on their part this time.

Not missing a beat to capitalize on the WikiLeaks scandal, Ncumbe fired back that Dell’s assessment constitutes nothing less than evidence that the United States intended to kill him. Speaking with New Zimbabwe

Ncube stormed: “I’m a politician and my future rests in the hands of voters who can vote for me, or choose not to vote for me. But when I lose an election, I don’t leave the stage but continue fighting over ideas. So if Dell is proposing that I be taken off stage, how do you do that without killing me?

He was seeking to determine on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe which leaders should lead the country and interfering so extensively and so deeply in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe that he had no problem recommending literally the assassination of leaders the Americans don’t like.”

Apparently, Ncumbe hasn’t considered the fact that if the United States was conspiring to kill anyone in Zimbabwe, it would likely be Robert Mugabe, not himself. But Dell clearly has other things on his mind besides murder, namely, promoting his own career. In a telling closing paragraph, he indignantly remarks that

The official media has had a field day recently whooping that “Dell leaves Zimbabwe a failed man”. That’s not quite how it looks from here. I believe that the firm U.S. stance, the willingness to speak out and stand up, have contributed to the accelerating pace of change. Mugabe and his henchman are like bullies everywhere: if they can intimidate you they will. But they’re not used to someone standing up to them and fighting back. It catches them off guard and that’s when they make mistakes.

In other words, Mugabe and his thugs weren’t prepared for the likes of Christopher Dell. Nor will they withstand the mighty powers of the United States, even as it stands alone while everyone wimps out.

We need to keep the pressure on in order to keep Mugabe off his game and on his back foot, relying on his own shortcomings to do him in. Equally important is an active U.S. leadership role in the international community. The UK is ham-strung by its colonial past and domestic politics, thus, letting them set the pace alone merely limits our effectiveness. The EU is divided between the hard north and its soft southern underbelly. The Africans are only now beginning to find their voice. Rock solid partners like Australia don’t pack enough punch to step out front and the UN is a non-player. Thus it falls to the U.S., once again, to take the lead, to say and do the hard things and to set the agenda.

Not only that

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of ordinary Zimbabweans of all kinds have told me that our clear, forthright stance has given them hope and the courage to hang on. By this regime’s standards, acting in the interests of the people may indeed be considered a failure. But I believe that the opposite is true, and that we can be justifiably proud that in Zimbabwe we have helped advance…

…wait for it…

…the President’s freedom agenda. The people of this country know it and recognize it and that is the true touchstone of our success here.

It’s not clear whether the Bush, and then Obama, administration shared Dell’s assessment of his successes. He was immediately posted to Afghanistan following his assignment in Harare, and was later appointed to his current position as Ambassador to Kosovo.

Ultimately, the lone document released so far by WikiLeaks gives little more than the standard macho blather common during the George W. Bush years, and reveals little insight into the actual operations of American diplomacy in Zimbabwe. But there’s more to come. WikiLeaks has indicated that it has nearly 3,000 more cables related to Zimbabwe that will drop here and there over the coming weeks. This is certainly unpleasant news for some in Zimbabwe and possibly in the United States. Says one Mugabe ally, “You just don’t know what’s coming next. If these documents go back to 1980, it’s likely there would be something in there embarrassing for the [president’s] party.”

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.