It may not be genocide, but what strongman Robert Mugabe has unleashed on Zimbabwe is right up there in mass misery. The humanitarian crisis is so acute that Kenya's prime minister now says outside troops must oust the intransigent ruler. That's an understandable response, but one fraught with pitfalls.
The world seems at a loss about the autocrat who will not go despite rejection at the polls. It has pressured with sanctions, cajoled with negotiations, and stamped its foot. This week, President Bush demanded the octogenarian step down, echoing statements from the leaders of Britain and France.
But Mr. Mugabe clings to power as tightly as his hungry citizens grasp wild berries and even rats – anything they can get their hands on to eat. In his nearly 30 years at the helm of the country he liberated from white rule, he has run one of Africa's most prosperous nations into the dirt.
Mugabe says sanctions did this, but it's his ill-conceived policies and despotism that have caused millions of Zimbabweans to flee the world's highest inflation, a jobless rate of 80 percent, life expectancy of 36 years, and political violence.
Bungled land redistribution in 2000 has exacerbated an ongoing food crisis that the UN expects will affect 5 million Zimbabweans by early next year. Now the country's facing a cholera epidemic that has killed about 800, and which is related to poor water and healthcare.
Doesn't all this justify invasion?
In 2005, the UN adopted a resolution endorsing "responsibility to protect," which allows for international intervention to prevent mass atrocities. Think Rwanda in 1994, when intervention didn't happen, and Kosovo in 1999, when it did.
Despite the urgency in Zimbabwe, troops probably won't march to the rescue. The West is occupied in Iraq or Afghanistan, and besides, it can't appear to act as a colonial-era bully. The UN can't even get enough peacekeepers for Congo, its largest mission. The African Union, busy in Darfur, is likewise stretched. The AU announced this week that it will not use force in Zimbabwe; it urges more dialogue.
The UN's enthusiasm in 2005 to intervene in humanitarian crises has fallen as risks have increased. If, for instance, NATO had to face the more assertive Russia of today, would it have bombed Kosovo? Iraq and Afghanistan show interventions don't always turn out as hoped. Those examples make countries wary about messing with sovereignty. Aid groups in Zimbabwe remind intervention backers that war itself causes casualties and can worsen a situation.
Military action should always be a last resort. As much as various players may think they've done all they can short of that, they haven't.
Mugabe's neighbors, particularly South Africa, can move him. But they've yet to apply enough pressure to implement a power-sharing deal with his opposition or to get him to resign or to peel away his layer of top supporters with concrete negotiations – all ways out.
The pressure on the region to act more assertively increases daily as Zimbabwe exports refugees, and now, cholera. Might it be upped by the West, with an announcement, perhaps, to boycott the 2010 World Cup in South Africa?
Until Africa acts, it will be heroes such as aid workers and Zimbabwe expatriates who will do what they can to alleviate Mugabe misery.