Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — Sometimes in the world of diplomacy, your friends are as big of a problem as your enemies.
As Zimbabwe collapsed in recent years under the weight of gross mismanagement and rampant corruption, then-U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell's cables kept the State Department abreast of opposition efforts to oust the country's independence leader and longtime president, Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe, who blamed the U.S. and particularly Britain for Zimbabwe's plight, was, in Dell's assessment, vengeful and ruthless, but a brilliant tactician.
Dell, who served as ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2004 to 2007, predicted that Mugabe would eventually lose power. He credited opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who endured severe beatings by security forces, with bravery. But he also found Tsvangirai "not readily open to advice, indecisive and with questionable judgment in selecting those around him."
Even worse, Dell told Washington, if Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change ever took power, its leader could prove to be an albatross, a view that largely matched Mugabe's opinion of the former mining and union official.
Dell's assessments came to light this week in a cache of diplomatic documents released by the WikiLeaks website.
"In short, he is a kind of Lech Walesa character," Dell wrote of Tsvangirai, comparing him to the former leader of Poland's Solidarity movement, the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc. "Zimbabwe needs him but should not rely on his executive abilities to lead the country to recovery." (Walesa was instrumental in bringing democratic change to Poland in the late 1980s, became its first democratically elected president in 1990, but quickly lost popularity and was voted out of office in 1995.)
Dell was dismissive of other opposition figures. Arthur Mutambara, who leads a party that split from Tsvangirai's MDC, was smart but "a lightweight who has spent too much time reading U.S. campaign literature and too little time thinking about the real issues." Welshman Ncube, an ally of Mutambara, was destructive and deeply divisive, Dell wrote, adding, "The sooner he is pushed off the stage the better."
The U.S. pressed for free elections under international supervision.
Instead, southern African leaders brokered the very peace deal that America most strongly opposed: a unity government, with Mugabe remaining as president and little democratic change. The government, sworn in in February 2009, followed disputed elections in 2008, which saw widespread violence by thugs associated with Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.
The government has been paralyzed by conflict and disputes. The U.S. has refused to lift travel and economic sanctions on Mugabe family members and several hundred senior ZANU-PF officials.