Books: A Point of View: Instructions to the Sea |
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Instructions to the Sea : on international political intervention

(S03E08, broadcast 25th and 27th April 2008)

" Is there a world?"

Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister of my homeland, Australia, covered himself with glory early this month by telling the Chinese leadership that China’s behaviour in Tibet raised human-rights issues. He said that Australia recognized China’s sovereignty over Tibet, which you might think was still an issue in itself for some Tibetans, but at least he had said something. He said it in Mandarin so that the Chinese couldn’t mistake his meaning. He sent another message, in English this time, by means of British journalists to whom he entrusted the warning that Australia would not tolerate the idea of the blue-suited Chinese security heavies who accompany the Olympic torch actually doing anything about security when the torch passed through Australia. They could model their blue suits, and that would be it.

Put these two messages together and they added up to something the Chinese could understand, even if they didn’t like it. Liberal in the best sense, this clarity of voice was especially welcome at a time when, back in Australia, Mr Rudd’s celebrated Summit, with a capital ‘s’, was producing at least one suggestion that didn’t sound very liberal at all. Mr Rudd’s Summit is billed as a meeting of all the best minds in the country to decide what policies Australia should adopt next, Mr Rudd’s own party apparatus having apparently neglected to think of any during their eleven years out of power.

It seems that at least one of these minds has decided that any Australians who are deemed insufficiently eco-friendly should have their citizenship withdrawn. Speaking as one who might very well fail to meet the criteria of eco-friendliness — I used power tools to build my windmill — I could be a candidate for withdrawn citizenship. The proponents of this initiative have not yet said what will happen to those whose citizenship gets withdrawn, but in the event of a resolution that they be deported, I am rather glad to have deported myself already.

Mr Rudd has not bound himself to any proposals that might be agreed on by his Summit talking-shop beyond a promise to take them under advisement. But the possibility that at least some of the best minds might be talking illiberal tripe must have struck him already, so it’s a relief to find that he has talked turkey to the Chinese. Not all of the turkey, perhaps, but as much of the turkey as can usefully be talked without a threat to intervene in some way against Chinese government policies, which would be a task beyond even the combined ingenuity of Australia’s best minds.

When we come to the question of Zimbabwe, things get harder, and precisely because in Zimbabwe’s case an effective intervention looks a bit less impossible than giving instructions to the sea. Economic sanctions, for example, might work, even in the face of Mr Mugabe’s time-tested capacity to pass any imposed hardships along to his increasingly impoverished people. In September last year Mr Gordon Brown published an article in the Independent in which he indicated that Britain was the second biggest donor to Zimbabwe’s relief funds but might not continue to be so if Mr Mugabe did not relinquish power. Mr Brown also said that as far as he was concerned, if Mr Mugabe was present at the upcoming EU—Africa summit then he, Mr Brown, might have to be absent. Mr Brown’s feelings were clear enough, but as a call to action they have been somewhat clouded by his later exhortations that the world must do something.

By the world he apparently means all the nations that have condemned Mr Mugabe’s reluctance to let go. In this case, however, it isn’t at all clear that the world can be said to exist. The world only partly includes South Africa, for example. To their credit, the South African courts have put a stop to the Chinese ship-load of small arms heading for Zimbabwe, small arms which Mr Mugabe might well have employed to influence those who have voted against him already and thus ensure that they would be less ready to do so next time. But the President of South Africa, Mr Mbeki, has still not told Mr Mugabe that it’s all over.

This reluctance can only encourage Mr Mugabe’s apparent conviction that it isn’t all over. Similarly, alas, the UN has so far offered little beyond an assurance that it will supply observers and helpers for a new election, or a run-off for the old one, or whatever the event might be called. But everybody knows that there has already been an election and everybody suspects that Mr Mugabe lost it. If that were not so, Mr Mugabe would have announced the result.

So we are in a condition where everybody suspects but not everybody says. That still gives Mr Mugabe room to believe that the time has not yet arrived when he must deport himself to somewhere else in the world and end his life in poverty. For indeed there are people abroad who think that Mr Mugabe never stole anything and that it is racism to say that he did. According to them, Mr Smith’s white government stole everything, and then the white farmers who stayed on in Zimbabwe stole everything again, and all that Mr Mugabe ever did was take it back, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. They are rather stuck, though, with the question of how he contrived to make the poor even poorer.

Still, even while waiting for the world to unite on this issue, Mr Brown comes out looking determined. It hasn’t been an easy fortnight for him, because the best minds on his staff decided that it would be a wise move for him to visit America at the same time as the Pope. The Pope arrived in a large aircraft supplied by Alitalia and Britain’s Prime Minister should have arrived in a large aircraft supplied by BA. But BA had no spare aircraft, only a mountain of spare luggage left over from the Terminal 5 triumph. So Mr Brown arrived in America in a charter aircraft and cut the kind of figure the British press strangely most likes to report on: the British leader being outshone by any other leader.

It’s true that Tony Blair used to be harder to outshine. But Mr Brown also faced the problem that the Americans not only agreed with him about Zimbabwe, they had already spoken out even more roundly. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had called Mugabe’s regime a disgrace, and even Mr Bush, putting two and two together and getting the right result for once, had concluded that his chosen honest broker, Mr Mbeki, had not done enough brokering. From that, you would think that Mr Mugabe would have had the tactical sense to identify the US as the No. 1 enemy of his regime. After all, everybody else blames America for everything. But Mr Mugabe — and this is almost a source of pride — continues to blame Britain. The awkward thing, however, about Britain being placed first on the dictator’s list of villains is that it also places on Britain the onus of action.

What should the action be? I wish I knew. This week my website got a letter from a citizen of Zimbabwe who no longer lives there but would clearly like to live there again. He said some nice things about an article I had written in favour of the Palestinians’ desire for their own state, and how a policy of indiscriminate suicide-bombing could only ensure that they would never get it. On the strength of my analysis, which he agreed with although he had never been to the Middle East, he asked me to write something about Zimbabwe before it was too late. Well, I’ve never been to Zimbabwe, and even if I had, I doubt I could write anything that would affect the course of events to even the smallest degree. But I feel obliged to have an opinion, as we all do. Just imagine the kind of courage that it would take to vote against Mr Mugabe all over again, and try not having an opinion about that.

My opinion about Zimbabwe, far from being original, is pretty much the same as Mr Brown’s opinion. I have been following Mr Brown’s statements of policy with care, not as if my life depended on them, but as if the life of my desperate correspondent from Zimbabwe would depend on them if he were still there. I think I can see what Mr Brown is after. He is trying to send a message to anyone in the political class in Zimbabwe who is fearless enough to realize that there is a better chance of the aid money being sent in if Mr Mugabe is sent out.

In the absence of a united world, which can only mean the armed force that the UN has conspicuously not yet mentioned, there is no other kind of intervention available except a promise of hard currency to supplant a currency which inflation has turned to liquid mud. To promise that, and to promise that Zimbabwe can’t have the aid money until Mr Mugabe takes off.

Where he goes to is a separate question, and less important. Where do we go, we deported ones who have been stripped of our citizenship for capital crimes, eco-negligence in my case, the wilful destruction of his own nation in the case of Mr Mugabe? There’s always somewhere. Idi Amin, now a mere memory, never faced justice in Uganda. He faced it in a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, not far from the Sands Hotel, where he had spent the last years of his life finding out that no matter how much money you steal from your people, it can’t buy you immortality. Omnipotence, yes, but only for a time, and Robert Mugabe’s time has come. All we have to do is get him to agree. Hence my message to my correspondent from Zimbabwe, whose friends are still there to face whatever happens next: good luck to them, and I only wish that they could depend on us.


For Westerners to dismiss Africa’s problems as insoluble is a bit glib, when you consider the extent to which the West caused the problems. Even today, with Western liberal sensitivity at its height — the sensitivity and the knowledge tend to be inversely related, but let that pass — few among even the most appalled foreign commentators on Africa’s colonial history are fully aware of what Belgian colonialism was like in the Congo at the time of Leopold II. If they were, they would have a much less condemnatory attitude towards British colonialism. But when all the allowances are made, we are left with the depressing fact that few of the sub-Saharan countries have done well since their exploiters went away. The new leaders, the wabenzi, have often done well out of exploiting their own populations, but that’s a different thing, and a very different kind of wealth. An economy whose fruits are embezzled by the government and exported to Western banks will very soon be no economy at all, and the same might be said for any African country whose finances depend on aid. But no matter how blatant the present corruption, the departed oppressor still gets the blame. Honour among thieves makes it mandatory to support the perpetrator and accuse the phantom. At the time of writing, Robert Mugabe still bulks large in Zimbabwe. There is a tacit worldwide conspiracy among the bien pensant to suppose that his wings have been clipped, but it might be wiser to suppose that, if he has retained only some of his power, the power that he has retained is the power to wreck the lives of his people. He has a taste for doing so, and always has had. In his quest for unchallenged power, white people were not the first people he murdered.

What to do about Africa’s disaster? The first answer, surely, is that there might be nothing we can do. The assumption that one’s emotional concern might be valuable in itself was the assumption that drove Mrs Jellyby to her charitable absurdities. With that first answer firmly given, the second answer can be better understood: we can give money. But we need to be certain about where the money is going. Michael Moore, at one point, was loudly giving forth the opinion that Africa could have clean water overnight if only the criminally negligent West willed the means. The truth was that even for something as apparently simple as clean water the means must begin with double-entry book-keeping, otherwise all the money will be stolen. In many of the stricken nations, the government is the last organization you should give money to, and you have a better chance with some faith-based outfit whose prayers you would rather not hear but whose immediate pastoral aims you approve. My own course of action — the reader has a right to ask — was to give a few pounds for the education of women in Ethiopia. The project was in the hands of Catholic missionaries whose sense of dedication seemed to chime with my own conviction that Africa would get nowhere until its women were treated justly. I was assured that girls, and girls only, would be going to the school I backed. Then it turned out that boys were going there too: yet another illustration of the abiding truth that Africa isn’t there to fulfil your dreams. It just sometimes looks as if it is.

Australia, on the other hand, really is dreamland: a democracy with proper elections. But the properly elected Kevin Rudd was already showing signs of a Hugo Chavez-like belief in his own supreme mental powers. Marking the start of his reign, like a jamboree for egos on the rampage, his personally convened Summit was one of the signs. It wasn’t so much that most of the proposals advanced by the thousand delegates were fatuous where they were not insane. It was the fact that Rudd, joining in the discussion, sat on the floor, so that the press could catch him looking involved. For the discerning, here was clear evidence that Australia had elected, for its Prime Minister, an incorrigible poseur. Well before the end of his one and only term, everybody knew. But to know it early on, you had to be able to assess what was before your eyes. Remarkably few could. Even more disturbing than what the journalists couldn’t see was what they couldn’t hear. Rudd’s use of language, hyperbolic from the jump, should have tipped them off that he didn’t really mean what he was saying. He spent three years saying that man-made global warming was the biggest moral threat to face mankind. Speaking like that, he could have been the Guardian’s science correspondent. Everything depended, said Rudd, on an agreement being reached in Copenhagen in October 2009. When it wasn’t, he came back to Australia and never mentioned the matter again. The electorate caught on and his support in the polls dropped into the basement. Finally even the media realized what his silence signified: he had never really meant any of that stuff. It was an unsolicited oratorical display, from a man devoid of reticence or judgement.