This article is a contribution from freelance writer Charles C. Johnson.
In a 1990 dissertation while she was at Oxford, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice praised the 1979-1980 British peacekeeping operation that led to the rule of Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe, as “a model and a masterpiece in the evolution of international peacekeeping” missions while journalists on the ground were condemning Mugabe’s mass murder of political opponents and dictatorial control.
The previously unseen 426-page dissertation, “The Commonwealth Initiative in Zimbabwe, 1979-1980: Implications for International Peacekeeping,” sheds new insights into Rice’s foreign policy thinking, especially when it comes to Africa and Zimbabwe.
Writing on the heels of the controversial 1980 election that saw Robert Mugabe’s Marxist party come to power, Rice praised Mugabe’s role, even going so far as to compliment him for the considerable military restraint he had shown in an election contest he was all but certain to win.
Despite viewing Mugabe favorably and as a peaceful participation, Rice noted that Mugabe signed the peace agreement “with great sadness,” described him as “a victim of his own rhetoric” because he had a peaceful election, rather than a full-scale war as he had sought. “Even as I signed the document, I was not a happy man at all,’ Rice quotes Mugabe as saying. “I felt we had been cheated…of the victory we had hoped we would achieve in the field.’”
Rice continued, quoting a Mugabe ally. “Though desperately yearning for a military victory, [Mugabe’s ZANU party] had ‘always said publicly that we wanted a political solution and the military use had been a last resort. [So] we were forced by the international community not to renege, not to appear inhumane. We had to accede to a political solution.’’” (62)
While Mugabe and his ZANU party did not seem to want to be involved in the peace process, Rice made it clear that it was the white Rhodesians that were the impediment to peace. “White Rhodesians were equally stunned [by Mugabe’s party’s victory], as many simply recoiled in terror and amazement,” Rice wrote. “To them Mugabe represented very nearly the devil incarnate. Mugabe’s extraordinary conciliatory speech on national television and his decision to retain the white military leadership and to appoint two whites to his cabinet calmed their immediate fears somewhat. Still, their shock and apprehension persisted.” (309)
Rice praised the Commonwealth Observer Group for its special role in supporting the elections. “By virtue of its thorough observed and widely accepted verdict, the Commonwealth Observer Group rendered Rhodesia a more stable launching pad for Zimbabwe,” Rice wrote. “By legitimizing the Mugabe’s government [sic], the COG fortified it against the inevitable attacks from its opponents who insisted that victory had been unjustly denied them.”
Rice continued. “The COG’s verdict diminished not only the likelihood of a coup but also the chances that the perpetrators could garner outside support….the COG Report gave Mugabe and his government the freedom to act confidently and boldly in fashioning the new independent government… . [The COG Report] constituted a crucial slap on the back of the infant Zimbabwe, opening its lungs and enabling it to breathe.” (339)
Rice singled out Mugabe for special praise. “Though Mugabe ordered a large portion of his forces to stay out of the APs [Zimbabwean meeting places], which resulted in many incidents of intimidation, personally he exercised patience and restraint,” Rice wrote. “In spite of numerous provocations, he never reacted violently or threw in the political towel,” she noted. She credited Zimbabwe with the “success of the transition.” (342)
“’The whole thing really came as a result of Mugabe,’” Rice approvingly quoted Major-General John Acland, a British military official, on his assessment of Mugabe. “’There had been two attempts on Mugabe’s life and Mugabe knew…who was responsible. Mugabe was a pragmatic, intelligent, sensible, gentle, balanced man.’”
Despite these views, Mugabe spent the next several years—that is the time in between the Commonwealth Initiative and the publication of Rice’s dissertation—murdering his political opponents and consolidating political control with mass arrests of rival political parties and dissidents.
Human rights groups, such as the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, which had previously criticized the white minority government, condemned the atrocities committed by Mugabe’s army. The New York Times reported that the extrajudicial killings may have topped 1,000. (“Zimbabwe Killings Said to Reach 1,000,” New York Times, February 26, 1983).
While suggesting that Zimbabwe’s experience may be a model for future peacekeeping operations, Rice did not mention this violence in her dissertation. Rice continued to hold a positive view of Robert Mugabe when she was appointed to Clinton’s National Security Council and later as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
Rice met with Mugabe in December 1997 on an Africa tour and promised that America would have a new relationship.
“In the past there was too much finger waving diplomacy with the United States telling African governments on what to do,” Rice told the Zimbabwean press. “We are ready to listen and hear from the leadership on what role the US can play (in Africa). The US can play a constructive role when it is desired by the governments of the regions.”
Rice met again with Mugabe in November 1998 as part of an effort to stop the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo but was made to wait three hours and mocked by the African strongman in the South African press.
“[Rice] is just an assistant secretary of state for Africa. She came as an envoy of President Clinton,” he said. “Yes, we have friends giving us the benefit of their ideas, but they cannot do more than that.” An end to the war in the DRC “can only come from real commitment by those who decided to invade the DRC,” referring to Rwanda and Uganda.
Rice, for her part, praised the meeting and the exchange of views.
“Zimbabwe is a very special place for me. It is always difficult to leave; I look forward to coming back in the near term,” she said in conclusion.
Rice is rumored to be the frontrunner to Replace Tom Donilon as Obama’s next national security adviser.
Johnson is the author of “Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America’s Most Underrated President.”