The West's next move in Zimbabwe

Short of lifting sanctions, it can offer targeted help to boost Mugabe's rival.

A sliver of light is shining in Zimbabwe, once a star nation in Africa that's been brutally mismanaged by dictator Robert Mugabe. This week, Mr. Mugabe's rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, is expected to become prime minister in a new power-sharing government. Few give the deal much hope, yet it must be given the opportunity to succeed.

How big an opportunity?

Africa's leaders, as voiced by the 53-member African Union, say the new unity government is cause for the international community to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe. Now's the time, it argues, to help to its feet a country staggering under hyperinflation and near-total joblessness, hunger and severe health problems – including a cholera epidemic.

Not so fast, caution the United States and European Union. They're lukewarm to the new political arrangement, and want to see proof of power-sharing and effective governance before they'll ease sanctions.

But doing nothing also leaves Mr. Tsvangirai with nothing – no leverage to succeed, and probably more likely to fail than if he had at least some tangible outside help to rely on. Small, targeted steps can be taken that are short of ending sanctions.

Western diplomats are right that this big move is premature. Mugabe, in power for nearly 30 years, stubbornly remains president, and he has a long history of broken promises.

He did not deliver on free or fair elections last year, when he lost to Tsvangirai and this trade unionist's Movement for Democratic Change. Neither has he allowed the free flow of humanitarian aid to desperate Zimbabweans – instead blaming the West for the country's problems.

And while Mugabe signed the power-sharing deal last September, it broke down over the divvying up of ministries and arrests of opposition figures. Last fall, Tsvangirai had hoped to at least gain control of the police (Mugabe gets the Army); he's since been forced to accept joint command.

Other factors bode ill for a unity government. Tsvangirai is considered feckless by some, and his party unprepared to govern. The one outside power that could truly apply pressure to Mugabe, neighboring South Africa, shirks from crossing a man still recognized for his role as liberator from white rule.

Still, while the West may be justified in its distrust of this deal, it is one that Tsvangirai has chosen – and the only option for now.

What the West can and should do is publicly offer limited humanitarian assistance to Tsvangirai, channeled through the ministries that the opposition in theory will control. Food, medical assistance, and temporary shelter could be funneled through the health ministry, for instance.

The West should demand accountability along with this help, then be willing to pull the plug if the aid is blocked by Mugabe and his supporters, or diverted to them – as it has been in the past.

With such a strategy, Tsvangirai has something to work with, and, if he can deliver, perhaps show even Mugabe's supporters that he's the one to back.

A unity government in Zimbabwe may last only weeks. But the West should do what it can to hasten success – not failure.

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