During my years in London I became quite familiar with the plight of Zimbabwe, not only because the British media pay considerable attention to African affairs (particularly when a former colony is involved), but also because I met a number of Zimbabwean exiles, both black and white, who'd been driven from their country by poverty, racism or political repression.
And that was back when Zimbabwe was still a more or less functioning country, before its mad dictator Robert Mugabe turned it into one of the planet's more tragic hellholes in the name of... what? Nobody seems to know if Mugabe is simply drunk with power, completely insane, or still in thrall to the quasi-Marxist ideology acquired in the 1960s and 70s, when Western bien pensants were excitedly cheering on the prospect of guerrilla warfare and communist insurgency all over Africa. True, they might not have wished such a thing on their own countries, but hey, it's only Africa, right? Perfect place to try out all our cockamamie New Left theories.
Unfortunately, Mugabe, not unlike most of Africa's self-styled "liberators," turned out to be far worse than the colonialism he overthrew. 28 years of his disastrous rule have turned Zimbabwe from one of the most successful and prosperous African countries into an absolute basket case. Life expectancy has been cut in half, unemployment is almost universal, a country that once exported food is now literally starving. And now, faced with being driven from office by his long-suffering people, Mugabe is doing away with the last vestiges of democracy in a desperate attempt to rig the election now in progress.
True, it's not the only country facing mass suffering as a result of a tyrant or tyrants run amok. Up at the other end of the continent, we have the ongoing obscenity of Darfur, where wholesale murder has been a matter of government policy for years already. And then there's the recent events in Burma/Myanmar, where the ruling junta has shown itself willing to starve its own people to death rather than allow foreign aid workers into their fiefdom.
In each of these cases - and these are only the most flagrant at the moment - there's a common thread: Western liberals and do-gooders wring their hands and make vague, clucking noises of sympathy, then conclude by saying, "But what can we do? It's their country, after all." Underlying this is an almost transparent unwillingness to suggest that Westerners have a right - let alone and obligation - to interfere with the "sovereignty" of these murderous dictatorships. It's the very antithesis of colonialism, but that doesn't make it any less evil.
One has to wonder if there'd be such reticence to act if similar events were unfolding in a European country. Well, one actually doesn't have to wonder; we have a fairly recent illustration, that of the Balkan wars. There was a lot of hand-wringing over that, too, no doubt because the people involved seemed, well, not quite as European as, say Frenchmen or Germans (the fact that many of them were Muslims may have had even more to do with it). But eventually decisive military action was taken, on the very reasonable grounds that when a people showed itself no longer capable of maintaining a basic civil or social structure, then it was incumbent upon its neighbors in the world to take responsibility for doing so.
Granted, this is disturbingly close to at least one of the reasons used to justify colonialism in the first place, but the fact that things have previously been done for the wrong reason doesn't obviate the need for doing them at a different time and place for the right reason. But what, you might ask, can the West do about Zimbabwe, Darfur or Myanmar? In the case of the latter, there's at least one easy answer: just the other day American troops, who'd been stationed at the border waiting for the OK to truck in food and supplies to cyclone victims, abandoned their positions because, as their commander said, "We just couldn't get permission to enter the country." The mightiest army in the history of the planet has to sit there humbly begging a handful of tinpot generals to allow them to carry out lifesaving missions? The Burmese army is going to seriously be able to prevent them from doing so?
The situation is a little more complicated in Zimbabwe and Darfur. There the only successful course would probably involve occupying the countries, installing new governments, and hanging around for a few years until those governments were able to function on their own. And yes, people, both in neighboring African countries and among our own isolationists on both the left and the right, would scream bloody murder over this alleged "imperialism." But was it imperialism, or simply common sense, when American and European troops occupied Germany and Japan and provided them with new, democratic governments? Is the world not far better off for this having been done?
Ah, but that's different, you say. Those countries had invaded their neighbors and unleashed unspeakable havoc on the world. Cruel as the situations may be in Zimbabwe et al., at least they're keeping it to themselves. And perhaps there's some validity to this point - if, that is, you're prepared to turn a blind eye to the suffering, oppression, and starvation of millions of people.
But it's a slippery slope, you say. What's to stop a Western government from using force to replace any government that's not doing as good a job as we might like it to? Hell, for that matter, some Western governments are not exactly covering themselves with glory at the moment. So where do you - can you - draw the line?
I suppose it really comes down to the democratic consent of the people. As we've seen in the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, even when our government can muster enough support to invade another country, it has a terribly difficult time maintaining that support the minute things don't go so well. And trying to occupy a failing African state is pretty much a guaranteed recipe for things not going well, so chances that we'll actually ever do something about the disasters in Zimbabwe or Darfur are about as great as were those of our doing something to stop the genocide in Rwanda.
But even as I recognize that nothing is likely to be done, that perhaps there's nothing that can be done, it still galls me to hear people dismiss the problem as though it were the natural state of affairs for "those people" and that it's really none of our business. Why do I suspect that there's no small amount of racism involved in this attitude? Because I see a similar hands-off approach to our failing inner cities, where liberal elites are quick to attack the police for attempting to restore order but have little or nothing to say about the thugs who hold the ghettos hostage. Run a successful crackdown on street crime and you'll inevitably have ACLU types - most of whom never set foot in the hood themselves - bellyaching about the "criminalization of black youth," with its insidious implication that common street thuggery is normal behavior for young black people, so normal, in fact, that to attempt to stop it would be attacking the very fabric of the black community.
Say what you will about Rudy Giuliani - and I know many of you will take me up on that offer and say some very vile things indeed - one area where he undeniably deserves praise is the way he wasn't willing to write off any area of the city, regardless of its racial composition, as a no-go zone. Under previous mayors, "difficult" neighborhoods were virtually abandoned, to the point where the police only ventured in for major emergencies. "Let those people kill each other, it's not our problem," seemed to be the prevailing philosophy. Even today, despite vast swathes of the city having been reclaimed from decay and anarchy, despite a 75% fall in the murder rate that's saved literally thousands of lives, the majority of them nonwhite, there are still voices - much of the editorial staff of the Village Voice, for example - accusing the NYPD of racism for simply enforcing the law, and demanding that we return to a policy of accepting and tolerating the unacceptable and intolerable.
From Zimbabwe to the backstreets of Brooklyn: too big a stretch? I don't think so; the principle remains the same. Justice needs to be colorblind, yet there are always those who, for their own personal or ideological grounds, are so determined to stop it being so that they are willing to visit untold suffering and misery on the very people they claim to care for.