BOSTON — There is plenty of gossip about African leaders in the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables.

Libya’s Muammar Ghadafi has botox and is dependent upon a voluptuous Ukrainian nurse. But everyone always knew there was something funny going on in Ghadafi’s Bedouin tent.

Revered South African leader Nelson Mandela was criticized by top officials inside the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, perhaps expected given Mandela’s outspoken opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Kenya’s leaders, meanwhile, were widely dismissed as so corrupt that they threaten the country’s democracy. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of course, said as much in her recent visit to Nairobi. The most surprising part is that the United States officially apologized to the Kenyan government. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson called Kenyan officials to say the administration of President Barack Obama is sorry for the undiplomatic remarks.

It is hardly news that U.S. officials condemn Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. Washington has been doing that for years. Even Republicans and Democrats can agree that Mugabe is a bad guy who has dismantled Zimbabwe’s democracy and reduced its once prosperous economy to penury.

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So far the most detailed WikiLeaks cable out of Africa is a lengthy dispatch about Zimbabwe that was sent by U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell as he was leaving his post in Harare in July 2007. It is a fascinating look at how a seasoned diplomat assessed the situation there.

“Robert Mugabe has survived for so long because he is more clever and more ruthless than any other politician in Zimbabwe,” Dell wrote in the cable. “To give the devil his due he is a brilliant tactician 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.”

Dell’s praise of Mugabe’s political skills does not go far enough. Not only can Mugabe outwit any politician in Zimbabwe, he can outmaneuver virtually everyone on the international stage, too.

Mugabe has run rings around world leaders ranging from George Bush to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. British prime ministers who have been outfoxed by Mugabe include Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. The list goes on. Mugabe is a world class tactician.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (left) with South African President Jacob Zuma on Nov. 26, 2010, at the Harare International airport.
(Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

Entitled “The End is Nigh,” Dell’s cable was wrong in predicting that Mugabe would soon lose power because of the country’s economic collapse. But then Zimbabwe was in the midst of a calamitous economic plummet that many observers thought would bring about Mugabe’s downfall.

While Dell predicted that Zimbabwe’s inflation would reach 1 million percent, many other analysts said that was not realistic. Within a year inflation reached a stratospheric 243 million percent, which would have brought down most politicians. But Mugabe held on.

The Zimbabwean dictator even stayed in power after an outbreak of cholera that killed more than 4,000 people and which was clearly caused by Mugabe’s misrule and his willful refusal to provide basic sanitation.

The WikiLeaks cable shows that the United States has not been farsighted enough to be effective in pressing for an end to Mugabe’s rule. Dell said that the best solution to Zimbabwe would be for Mugabe to be voted out of power by free and fair elections under international supervision. Yet he leaves it up to South African President Thabo Mbeki to achieve that goal.

Mbeki had already proved to be Mugabe’s supporter and enabler. The South African president was never in favor of free and fair elections, especially under international supervision. Mbeki predictably moved to establish a coalition between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. That is the unwieldy government that exists today and which has only served to keep Mugabe in power.

Although Mbeki lost power and Jacob Zuma is now president, there has been no discernable change in South Africa's policy toward Zimbabwe. South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) has a bond with Mugabe's Zanu-PF. Both are liberation movements that fought bitter wars to overthrow white minority rule and both are now ruling parties. South Africa's ANC does not want to see Mugabe's party lose power because that would set a precedent for the ANC's own demise.  

Therefore the United States must be more clever in its diplomacy in southern Africa if it wants to successfully deal with Mugabe. Rather than let South Africa mislead it on Mugabe, U.S. diplomats should build a core group of African leaders who will press to restore democracy in Zimbabwe. It would not be easy, but skillful diplomacy should be able to achieve that.

The WikiLeaks document also shows that the United States has a mixed view of Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, saying he is the “only player on the scene now with real star quality and the ability to rally the masses. But Tsvangirai is also a flawed figure, not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him.”

Dell said Tsvangirai is “the indispensable element for opposition success but possibly an albatross around their necks once in power.”

Dell said the split in the Movement for Democratic Change was a "totally unnecessary self-inflicted wound” and seemed to blame Welshman Ncube, who was described as “a deeply divisive and destructive player in the opposition ranks and the sooner he is pushed off the stage, better.”

WikiLeaks has pulled back the diplomatic curtain to expose the United States’ policy on Zimbabwe. It shows that Washington has left it up to South Africa to encourage Mugabe to leave office. This is not realistic. The United States must use all diplomatic skill to build an Africa-wide coalition to restore democracy in Zimbabwe. This is a difficult task, but U.S. diplomacy in Africa, even hampered as it is by the WikiLeaks' revelations, should be up to the challenge.

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