Mugabe's visit: a test for Carter diplomacy

President Carter has an opportunity this week to display some of that "creative, responsible, and courageous diplomacy" he says must go hand in hand with a strong defense. It will come in his talks with Robert Mugabe, who is making his first visit to Washington as leader of Zimbabwe. The visit will test just how well the United States understands the importance of aiding a country that now plays a critical role in bringing about peaceful rather than violent change in southern Africa.

Prime Minister Mugabe is looking for financial support as he directs his country down the path of multiracial democracy. The needs are great. In the aftermath of many years of war, it is necessary to rebuild schools, roads, water systms. Refugees have to be resettled and soldiers retrained. Blacks must be educated for new jobs. African farming areas must be developed.

So far US aid has been very much on the modest side -- $20 million this year coupled with a promise of $30 million in the coming fiscal year. This is a paltry sum compared with the $1 billion which Kissinger once dangled in front of Rhodesia to entice whites to accecpt black rule. Zimbabweans do not expect anything like that largess now; the Kissinger overture was long overtaken by the Lancaster House settlement which finally brought independence to Zimbabwe. But there will be immense disappointment if the US does not make more aid available. Britain has pledged $172 million over five years. The West Germans, too, are making a contribution. One proposal deserving study is an international aid consortium for Zimbabwe, much like the consortium set up under World Bank auspices in 1974 to help India.

Why assist Mr. Mugabe? Without ignoring the massive problems which beset Zimbabwe, it nonetheless can be said that the prime minister has so far done an extraordinary job pulling the country together after its bitter racial conflict. He has been extremely sensitive to white interests, moving only gradually to carry out changes and creating a good climate for business and foreign investment. He has chastised members of his own party for sniping at rival leader and Cabinet member Joshua Nkomo. Faced with an early test of scandal within the government -- a murder charge against a senior black minister -- he has come down firmly on the side of law and order, indicating justice will be done whatever the political consequences.

Humanitarianism and economic self-interest alone dictate that the US help Zimbabwe, but there can be no ignoring the political dimensions as well. Inless and until Mr. Mugabe can begin to show some economic and social gains and build up a moderate following, he will be increasingly open to attack from radicals withing his own party. Some already are resentful of his pragmatic policies.

It is in Africa's and the West's interests that this experiment in moderation succeed. Together with Zambia and Mozambique, which themselves now show signs of edging back toward more mixed economies, Zimbabwe holds the key to what happens in South Africa. Racial change must come to that country but it will more likely come violently if neighboring Zimbabwe, because of insufficient economic progress, becomes radicalized. That is an outcome American diplomacy should seek to avert.

This is not the best of seasons in the US to be talking foreign aid. But, politics or no, it is a season for mature and far-sighted diplomacy. Better to spend some money on peace now -- than invite instability later.

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