So Popular and So Spineless
Friday, 18 July 2008

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Much ink has been spilled lately decrying the decline in American popularity around the world under President Bush. Polls tell us how China is now more popular in Asia than America and how few Europeans say they identify with the United States. I am sure there is truth to these polls.

We should have done better in Iraq. An America that presides over Abu Ghraib, torture and Guantánamo Bay deserves a thumbs-down.

But America is not and never has been just about those things, which is why I also find some of these poll results self-indulgent, knee-jerk and borderline silly. Friday's vote at the U.N. on Zimbabwe reminded me why.
 
Maybe Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans and Africans don't like a world of too much American power — "Mr. Big" got a little too big for them. But how would they like a world of too little American power? With America's overextended military and overextended banks, that is the world into which we may be heading.
 
Welcome to a world of too much Russian and Chinese power.
 
I am neither a Russia-basher nor a China-basher. But there was something truly filthy about Russia's and China's vetoes of the American-led U.N. Security Council effort to impose targeted sanctions on Robert Mugabe's ruling clique in Zimbabwe.
 
The U.S. put forward a simple Security Council resolution, calling for an arms embargo on Zimbabwe, the appointment of a U.N. mediator, plus travel and financial restrictions on the dictator Mugabe and 13 top military and government officials for stealing the Zimbabwe election and essentially mugging an entire country in broad daylight.
 
In the first round of Zimbabwe's elections, on March 29, the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won nearly 48 percent of the vote compared with 42 percent for Mugabe. This prompted Mugabe and his henchmen to begin a campaign of killing and intimidation against Tsvangirai supporters that eventually forced the opposition to pull out of the second-round runoff vote just to stay alive.
 
Even before the runoff, Mugabe declared that he would disregard the results if his ZANU-PF party lost. Or as he put it: "We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X" on some paper ballot.
 
And so, of course, Mugabe "won" in one of the most blatantly stolen elections ever — in a country already mired in misrule, unemployment, hunger and inflation. Some 25 percent of Zimbabwe's people have now taken refuge in neighboring states. (I have close friends from Zimbabwe, and one of my daughters worked there in an H.I.V.-AIDS community center in January.) The Associated Press reported in May from Zimbabwe "that annual inflation rose this month to 1,063,572 percent, based on prices of a basket of basic foodstuffs." Zimbabwe's currency has become so devalued, the A.P. explained, that "a loaf of bread now costs what 12 new cars did a decade ago."
 
No matter. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's U.N. ambassador, argued that the targeted sanctions that the U.S. and others wanted to impose on Mugabe's clique exceeded the Security Council's mandate. "We believe such practices to be illegitimate and dangerous," he said, describing the resolution as one more obvious "attempt to take the Council beyond its charter prerogatives." Veto!
 
Mugabe's campaign of murder and intimidation didn't strike Churkin as "illegitimate and dangerous" — only the U.N. resolution to bring a halt to it was "illegitimate and dangerous." Shameful. Meanwhile, China is hosting the Olympics, a celebration of the human spirit, while defending Mugabe's right to crush his own people's spirit.
 
But when it comes to pure, rancid moral corruption, no one can top South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, and his stooge at the U.N., Dumisani Kumalo. They have done everything they can to prevent any meaningful U.N. pressure on the Mugabe dictatorship.
 
As The Times reported, America's U.N. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, "accused South Africa of protecting the 'horrible regime in Zimbabwe,' " calling this particularly disturbing given that it was precisely international economic sanctions that brought down South Africa's apartheid government, which had long oppressed that country's blacks.
 
So let us now coin the Mbeki Rule: When whites persecute blacks, no amount of U.N. sanctions is too much. And when blacks persecute blacks, any amount of U.N. sanctions is too much.
 
Which brings me back to America. Perfect we are not, but America still has some moral backbone. There are travesties we will not tolerate. The U.N. vote on Zimbabwe demonstrates that this is not true for these "popular" countries — called Russia or China or South Africa — that have no problem siding with a man who is pulverizing his own people.
 
So, yes, we're not so popular in Europe and Asia anymore. I guess they would prefer a world in which America was weaker, where leaders with the values of Vladimir Putin and Thabo Mbeki had a greater say, and where the desperate voices for change in Zimbabwe would, well, just shut up.

Thomas L. Friedman became the paper's foreign-affairs columnist in 1995. He won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, his third Pulitzer for The New York Times.
—By Guardian staff in London

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