In the past decade, working as a US diplomat and then as a human rights advocate, I've had the perversely unique opportunity to meet on occasion with one of the longest-serving dictators in the world, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
These three- or four-hour marathon meetings were right out of central casting, with an out-of-touch octogenarian autocrat spouting vitriol against the British, democracy, and American corporate interests while sipping tea and speaking in an English accent even Queen Elizabeth would envy.
In one of the early meetings, no one in the room at that time took seriously his vague threat that he would rather watch his house burn down then give away the key to the presidential mansion. Mugabe's latest announcement that he is forming a new government without the opposition despite their power-sharing deal clarifies what he meant: that he would never leave power willingly as long as he was alive, and that he would destroy the country if he had to in order to maintain his grip on power.
He's made good on his promise: Half the country faces starvation, the government – which once boasted a literacy rate higher than America's – spends 18 cents per student per year on education, food prices double every 24 hours with the world's highest inflation rate, and a cholera epidemic rages as the once-stellar healthcare system collapses.
The situation is dire but not hopeless, if the international community – including the incoming Obama administration – is willing to move beyond the failed strategy aimed at cobbling together a coalition government with a man whose entire worldview is predicated on maintaining absolute power by any means necessary.
For a real solution in Zimbabwe, there are two credible choices: isolation or intervention. Neither is cost-free, and both are fraught with dangers. But now that the house is burning, we must take away Mugabe's key.
A strategy of isolation would involve widening and deepening targeted sanctions against regime officials and building a coalition to enforce them. Beyond that, Zimbabwe's southern African neighbors could close their borders with Zimbabwe to all but refugees and humanitarian supplies, and interdict all energy and arms exports to Zimbabwe.
Furthermore, the UN Security Council could refer the case of Zimbabwe to the International Criminal Court in order to investigate the systematic denial of food to people on the basis of their political affiliation as well as the widespread use of torture by the state.
There are significant risks in this approach. The humanitarian crisis could deepen, pushing millions into actual starvation. Mugabe could order his militias and security services to intensify their attacks against civilian populations deemed unsupportive of the regime. His government could block access by humanitarian groups and thousands could die of cholera and other epidemics.
The truth, however, is that much of this is already happening, but in slow motion. Mortality rates are creeping upward because of an explosion of untreated AIDS cases, combined with spiraling malnutrition rates. Zimbabwe already has among the lowest life expectancy rates in the world, hovering around 40 years by the UN's last count.
There may be a faster solution. When the situation in Idi Amin's Uganda spiraled out of control and he began destabilizing neighbors, Tanzania intervened in 1979 and overthrew Amin's regime. When Charles Taylor's destruction of Liberia and Sierra Leone became untenable, Nigeria and other neighbors sent troops, and the US sent warships off Liberia's coast in a concerted regional push to successfully urge Taylor to resign and leave the country in 2003. When Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko's divide-and-conquer approach to government began creating security problems for neighbors, they supported rebel groups to overthrow him in 1997.
As refugees, crime, and disease flow across their borders from Zimbabwe, the time has come for neighboring governments to expedite Mugabe's departure. South Africa remains the key, and the incoming Obama administration would do well to hold early talks with President Kgalema Motlanthe and ruling party leader Jacob Zuma about how this might be accomplished.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who is returning to Zimbabwe for more talks with Mugabe next week, should be congratulated for his exhaustive efforts to find a negotiated solution to the conflict. But the likelihood of successful talks remains low, and the international community should not delay putting the wheels in motion to oust Mugabe. It will probably be messy in the short run and not without unintended consequences. But the status quo will guarantee that any hope for Zimbabwe – and huge numbers of its people – will eventually cease to exist.
• John Prendergast is co-chair of Enough, a Center for American Progress project focused on ending genocide and crimes against humanity (www.enoughproject.org). He is the coauthor with Don Cheadle of "Not on Our Watch."