Page last updated at 01:56 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 02:56 UK

Washington diary: Tackling Zimbabwe

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Look around the world and what you see is one nasty regime after another getting away with it.

Robert Mugabe election poster in Bulawayo - 21/6/2008
How will the international community tackle Robert Mugabe?
The generals of Burma thumbed their nose at the global community, first by gunning down monks in the streets, then by watching their own citizens die rather than accept urgently needed aid after the cyclone.

The government of Sudan happily continues to sponsor what President George W Bush has called "genocide", and a phalanx of outrage from Hollywood to The Hague has been powerless to stop it.

Iran continues to enrich uranium - and its own coffers thanks to the soaring price of crude oil - while the Israelis are wondering whether they should put a stop to Tehran's alleged nuclear programme with a unilateral strike sanctioned by the US.

And now it is Zimbabwe's turn to proffer two fingers.

As he prances around the campaign trail in his colourful jackets, the still-sprightly 84-year-old Robert Mugabe reminds me of the Joker in Batman, laughing at a disapproving world.

His opponent Morgan Tsvangirai has been forced to hide in the Dutch embassy.

The wife of the mayor of Harare, a regime opponent, has been beaten to death.

Zimbabwe is a country of destitute, frightened billionaires

There is consistent evidence of systematic harassment and murder of anyone who dares to support the opposition.

And a ham sandwich now costs 3.8 billion Zim dollars, when we last checked.

Zimbabwe is a country of destitute, frightened billionaires. And yet there seems very little that a disapproving world can do about it.

Call it the axis of impunity. It is a club that speaks volumes about the state of the world.

There is no shortage of moral outrage about the members of this club. What is missing is the moral high ground.

When America points a justly accusing finger at Burma's generals, it no longer has the same clout as it did a decade ago.

The double standards of Guantanamo Bay are one reason.

The other is the concept of "the coalition of the willing", the phrase used by President Bush to describe a fairly reluctant bunch of fellow travellers on the regime change express.

This further eroded the weak authority of the United Nations and introduced an air of voluntary laxity into matters of global urgency.

Economic interests

When I put it to Jendayi Frazer, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, that Zimbabwe might be a case for "regime-change", she almost reacted as if she had never heard the phrase.

Diplomacy has replaced the 101st Airborne Division as the administration's tool of influence.

The trouble is that it is firing blanks.

Just when you actually want Uncle Sam to throw his weight around a bit, he says he is bogged down, busy, otherwise engaged - call back later.

The UN is toothless, the EU is gormless and the US has had 'the willing' kicked out of it by Iraq and Afghanistan

Then there is good old fashioned economic self-interest.

Why would the Chinese rein in their clients in Sudan if they need to buy all the oil and copper they can get their hands on?

And what hope is there for Europe to speak with one thunderous voice when its 27 members cannot even agree on a basic common constitution?

And if you're Russia, Iran or Venezuela - the axis of crude - and you can rake in $145 for a barrel of oil, why should you be listening anyway? You're laughing all the way to the refinery.

The UN is toothless, the EU is gormless and the US has had "the willing" kicked out of it by Iraq and Afghanistan.

Age of non-intervention

The emphasis now seems to be on regional bodies that most of the world barely even knew existed until recently.

Asean has tried to grapple politely with Burma.

The African Union is sending peacekeepers to Sudan.

And Zimbabwe awaits the stinging sanction of the Southern African Development Community. Take cover!

The good things about these neighbourhood watchdog schemes is that they are regional.

If his African neighbours berate him, then Robert Mugabe can no longer claim that he is being hounded by Rhodesia's former colonial masters.

Unfortunately the neighbours also need to shed their milk teeth.

Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president-in-waiting, may have called the actions of Zimbabwe's ruling party Zanu PF "unacceptable".

The President of Namibia has chimed in.

But the man who really counts - President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa - has remained mutely on the fence, apparently unwilling to ruffle the feathers of his former comrade-in-arms.

But whatever debt the ANC leadership owes Mr Mugabe from its days in opposition against apartheid, it must know that it would probably never have come to power if the international community had not imposed stringent sanctions against the Pretoria regime.

This crisis is about Zimbabwe's future and South Africa's reputation.

There is clearly more work for sanctions to do.

The British bank Barclays, for instance, opted out of business in apartheid South Africa but continues to function in Zimbabwe, which has made a mockery of human rights as well as the value of money - both of which are surely good reasons to cut ties.

The crisis in Burma, Darfur and Zimbabwe illustrate how messy the global picture has become.

We are living in an age of non-intervention, where the stage is crowded with fuming ringside observers.

It is time to get back to the drawing board.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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