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Tobias Wolff: The Writing Obsession (November 12, 2003)
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Robert Gildea: "Neither Heroes nor Villains" (November 5, 2003)
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Peter Carey: A Living, Breathing Hoax (October 22, 2003)
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William Langewiesche: The Structure of an Accident (October 22, 2003)
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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Atlantic Unbound | December 3, 2003
Life in Mugabe-ville

Samantha Power, the author of "How to Kill a Country," describes Zimbabwe's descent into chaos


pend just one hour with human-rights activist, lawyer, scholar, and writer Samantha Power, and you're bound to come away either exhausted or exhilarated. Power doesn't just move through the moments of her life—she spins, attending to a whirlwind of events with the energy of a kid at recess and the deliberation of a seasoned diplomat. During a recent visit to her office at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, I watched Power juggle a multitude of matters in our sixty-minute interview. Among these were a phone call from the campaign of presidential hopeful Wesley Clark, the requests of eager students who'd lined up in the hall for a slice of her coveted office hours, and preparations for an afternoon trip to New York for her mother's birthday. Throughout our conversation, Power's assistant knocked on the door several times, always with an "urgent" request. Power handled these interruptions with complete calm, in each instance returning to our conversation with unflagging vigor. On the subject of human rights, Power talks with a rare breed of passion that is impossible to miss. And her work ethic is equally impressive. It's been said that during blustery Boston winters, she often keeps the temperature in her office at 80 degrees. That way, when the heat turns off in the evening she'll still have enough warmth built up to work until the wee hours of the morning.

Combining that passion and work ethic with a deft analytical mind, Power has chosen to focus her thinking primarily on war and genocide. "I find myself most drawn to places where the stakes seem really high in terms of human life," she says, "toward places where there are the largest numbers of preventable deaths." In 2002, Power's book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, explored America's tragic inaction in several instances of preventable death, and won her a Pulitzer Prize. The book in part grew out of Power's September 2001 Atlantic article, "Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let the Rwanda Tragedy Happen," which won a National Magazine Award for public interest.

In "How to Kill a Country" (December Atlantic), Power returns to Africa. This time, she has written about the latest tragedy on there: Zimbabwe. Independent from Britain since 1980, Zimbabwe is a fertile land that has long been considered the "breadbasket" of Africa. Yet in just the past five years, Zimbabwe's liberation leader, president Robert Mugabe, has managed to bring his country to chaos. Power spent a month in Zimbabwe last summer and then wrote a chilling analysis of the "all-systems assault" that Mugabe has launched against his own people. Power observes that Mugabe has compiled a veritable "how-to manual on national destruction" and has demonstrated "how much damage one man can do, very quickly."

Power argues that destroying a country Mugabe-style involves the following ten "steps":

  1. Destroy the engine of productivity
  2. Bury the truth
  3. Crush dissent
  4. Legislate the impossible
  5. Teach hate
  6. Scare off foreigners
  7. Invade a neighbor
  8. Ignore a deadly enemy
  9. Commit genocide
  10. Blame the imperialists
At the center of the destructive campaign is Mugabe's redistribution of farmland from white farmers to blacks. "Redistribution" in this case means outright stealing, which has turned thousands of fertile acres into fallow land under the mismanaging hands of Mugabe's cronies, who have received the farms as gifts for loyalty. It is a move that has devastated Zimbabwe's productivity, pushing much of the country to the brink of starvation. Land reform has been an issue ever since the civil war that led to Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, but almost no one agrees that Mugabe's solution is doing anything but wrecking the country's valuable resources. Last March, Zimbabweans voted Mugabe out of office, only to see him rig the results and jail the winner (Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the "Movement for Democratic Change") on charges of treason. Held completely unaccountable for his actions by local, regional, and international forces, Mugabe has made victims of the very people whose independence he fought to win just twenty years ago. "Every day I was in Zimbabwe," Power says, "I would ask myself, 'how is society going to be here tomorrow when I wake up?' Things have got to change."

I spoke with her on November 3 and 12.

—Steve Grove

[Note: "How to Kill a Country" is not yet available online, but is available on the newsstand in the December issue.]

There are many places in the world where you could go to explore the violation of human rights. Why did you choose Zimbabwe?

The alarm bells are ringing in Zimbabwe right now in a way that they aren't ringing in many other countries in the world. And in the other countries where they are ringing, we already seem to be involved: Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. Zimbabwe, it seemed to me, was very likely to get left off the foreign-policy agenda. So it seemed like a good time, with a crisis unfolding, to draw our attention to this tragedy.

But there was another reason I was interested in Zimbabwe. One of the most provocative and intriguing claims in human rights in the last decade is the claim of Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen that no country with a free press has ever had a famine: essentially that civil and political rights are what enable social and economic welfare. For a leader to have economic policies that cause mass poverty for his people, and to have 30 percent of the population infected by HIV—and for the local press not to be able to put pressure on him to alleviate these problems—that's a very dire situation. So it seemed like it would be useful—not just for Zimbabwe but for other countries—to try to understand the interplay between these forces.

Foreign journalists have been banned from Zimbabwe since February. How did you get into the country, and how did you manage once inside?

You know, we journalists sometimes mythologize the dangers of our movements, creating images of "deep throat" meetings in a variety of settings. When I went to Zimbabwe I was definitely afraid, because of all I heard. I had all my contacts buried in very discreet places in my baggage. I expected to get searched, and I expected my itinerary to come under scrutiny. But when I walked in it was like, "hey, mon." Literally, there was a sign that said "Tourists," and so I went through that. It's a lot harder if you're a photographer, especially if you're a video photographer. But print journalists can easily get in.

In terms of getting around, initially I was very careful. I was worried about being followed, so I stayed out of the city and out of the main hotels and took a variety of precautions. But it got to the point where I started to be a little bolder. I wanted to see the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai (pronounced chang-er-rai), so even though I knew that his house would be watched, going there was a risk worth taking. There were enough foreigners and enough Caucasians in the country that I could have been an NGO worker, a lawyer, a local white—there were a lot of things I could have been. But what never got easy was actually getting people to trust that they would be secure in talking to me. I could get people to talk to me at length about their frustration and suffering, but when it came to taking names and so on, there was still a real fear that there would be accountability issues.

You knew you were headed for a country that was in bad shape, but what surprised you about Zimbabwe?

I'd never been to Zimbabwe before, and I'd been hearing so much about how awful and screwed up the place was. So I was actually shocked at how much possibility was there. The fertility of the land, the industriousness of the people, the education and the literacy, the role of religion and sense of community that was still maintained... all of this really blew me away.

Of course the corollary to that is the enormous lengths that someone had to go to screw a place like Zimbabwe up. And so that was the second thing that surprised me—the "all-systems assault" Mugabe has launched. The inflation was so bad that I had to carry the cost of one night's stay at a guest house—maybe fifteen U.S. dollars—in a pillowcase: it was that many bills. I've been to a lot of countries that are going through or have just been through war or genocide, but I've never been to a peacetime country where civilians are suffering as they are in Zimbabwe. And again, this is all the more striking because you can see that it doesn't have to be that way. Sometimes, you go to a country and it's so overpopulated or it's so poor that you know that the cycle of despair is very long-standing, and it's hard to find hope. But in Zimbabwe, this turn of events is so recent, so rapid. It wasn't long ago that Zimbabweans considered themselves to be the success story of southern Africa.

It seems almost insane, the lengths Mugabe has gone to destroy his own country. Your piece points out that after independence, Mugabe was initially doing some positive things for Zimbabwe, including an education drive that brought the literacy rate up to 85 percent. But then, in the past five years, he's begun this wholesale destruction of his country. I'm confused. What exactly happened to Mugabe?

Yeah, that's something I didn't try to explain in the piece. First, destruction like this tends to happen incrementally. Shockingly incrementally. Of course Mugabe didn't write a manual called "I want to destroy my country." So what happened is that at a certain point, something became more pressing to him than the welfare of his country—and I think that's personal power.

When he took over, Mugabe built on the education system and the transport system, and built up the infrastructure of Zimbabwe. But the war veterans who'd helped him win the country's independence in 1980 were not compensated for their sacrifices. Through the 1980s and 1990s, they were clamoring for compensation, which Mugabe had promised them. Meanwhile, Mugabe had surprised many by allowing the white farmers—often seen as vestiges of England's colonial rule—to maintain their farms. As time wore on, these white farmers appeared to sort of be "living high on the hog." This became politically embarrassing for Mugabe.

Then Mugabe invaded the Congo: a single decision with big consequences. He sent troops to the Congo partly to try "African solutions for African problems," but once he got there, the spoils of war became everything. Army officers took what they wanted, and Mugabe had to hold his cronies at bay back at home—they ran the country's ministries and were the people who could challenge his power. So he started to buy them off with these spoils. Well, then the still-living veterans from the war of liberation said, "wait a second, how come the veterans of this blunderous war in the Congo get these jewels and riches, and we're still left seventeen years after liberation with nothing?"

So in a sense, the invasions of white farms were Mugabe's attempt to kill three birds with one stone—to get the war veterans off his back, to further satisfy his cronies, and to get rid of the white farmers, who had begun teaming up with the black opposition as a political force. So I think you can see there is no one answer to how Mugabe became this way—he certainly didn't roll up his sleeves one day and say, "I've had enough of running the jewel of Africa, now I want my country to become the joke of Africa." But everything sort of fed on itself, and the only unifying theme through it all is his personal power. Power comes first, second, third, and last—and nothing can stand in its way.

One of the casualties of Mugabe's personal power struggle that you mention is the Daily News, an independent newspaper in Zimbabwe. Once an important voice of dissent, their printing presses were bombed in January 2001; then this past September Mugabe denied the paper a license to print, shutting it down. If Amartya Sen's claim is true—that a free press will always provide the dissent necessary to prevent a famine—then this development is especially troubling. Did you meet any Daily News reporters while you were in Zimbabwe? Are they hopeful that they'll find a way to start up again?

Yes, I met a lot of them. The Daily News was the liberalization force. I don't think any of them were really prepared for this ploy by Mugabe. They would say, "I don't know why he lets us publish," but then they would say, "He has to let us publish."

I've been in e-mail touch with some of them since I've come back. They're pretty much on their own—they're fighting it out in court. Some sound very relieved in the most basic sense to still be getting paid their salaries. The publisher and the owner have taken it upon themselves to keep people afloat.

When the Daily News was operating, did it reach the rural areas of Zimbabwe?

Generally, the rural areas are still pretty cut off—and they're very dependent on state television and radio, which are of course in Mugabe's hands. There is the sense that Mugabe has given up on the cities, but that the rural areas are still his stronghold. Rural Zimbabwe voted with Mugabe in the presidential election; even their parliamentary seats went to Mugabe's party. So that's the key—Zimbabweans in the city say that's where they have to get their message.

And that's the irony of the international aid programs like the World Food Program: the rural areas are more likely to be fed by international aid givers than people in the cities, which appeases some of the discontent that might be brewing out there, in terms of malnutrition and so on. This helps Mugabe to keep the rural areas at bay.

It all feeds on itself. The activists in the cities, who are strong MDC supporters, might have wanted to ship the Daily News to rural areas. But because there's no money, and because there's no fuel being imported because the state has such a huge external debt and doesn't have the foreign currency to buy fuel, the activists' means of transport—of literally getting out there to sow unrest and expose people to a new way of thinking—has been taken away by the economic hardships. So it's this quasi-stalemate.

Mugabe has also attacked the other source of dissent you mention, the MDC. Despite winning the last election by all "unofficial counts," Tsvangirai is in court battling charges of treason. Does the MDC have a chance as the future of Zimbabwe's government?

Everyone you meet who isn't in the ruling party wants a change in Zimbabwe, so they're all invested in the MDC. The MDC has positioned itself as a "come one, come all" kind of umbrella coalition—and that's what's scary. Teachers, farm laborers, shopkeepers, Ndebele speakers, Shona speakers, white farmers... it's huge. Too huge, of course, to be a governing body. If the MDC was tasked with governance, the divisions among its constituents would make themselves apparent, and many would feel betrayed. So I guess one of my fears is that all civil society groups have been completely absorbed by the MDC. If the MDC does finally defeat Mugabe and come to power but appoints all the civil-society leaders in government, then who's there to keep Tsvangirai honest? The fear is that again, the society will invest all its hopes in one man. It's dangerous. One of the ways to inoculate Tsvangirai from Mugabe-style tendencies would be for civil-society organizations to be developing independent of the political party. And right now, that's not happening.

Despite those problems, you mention your admiration of the many Zimbabweans who are speaking out against their leader. Given that 70,000 people, according to Amnesty International, were killed or tortured by Mugabe last year, aren't Zimbabweans afraid? What fuels this voice of dissent?

I asked myself that same question, because it is striking, given the brutality, that people remain willing to take tremendous risks. I think right now that hope lies in history. In many cases people have a fresh memory of prosperity, and of basic respect for their rights. I mean, Mugabe's crackdown on the country is so new that I think that a lot of the protest is incredulity, it's "what's happening?" In addition, there's a huge Zimbabwean exile community or émigré community abroad, which reminds those who've stayed behind that not everyone is living as they are, hand to mouth, or without the ability to speak out. I think these things have emboldened Zimbabweans and caused them to reject the inevitability of what's being done to them.

On the other hand, one of the impressions I got in Zimbabwe that I didn't write about in the piece was the patience of the people. You see people waiting in these bank lines that go around block after block after block—they're waiting to take out money that is no longer worth anything, money that basically just pays for their bus fare home. And they're there the next morning to wait again. And so there's a strange endurance. It's a weird combination, I think, of expectation for something better but patience with something quite dire.

Patience? How?

Maybe the patience comes from the belief that this can't continue. The whole country is frozen in this moment of expectancy. No one believes it can get worse. How can you get worse than 80 percent unemployment? How can you get worse than 500 percent inflation, and rising every day? How can you get worse than having your highest bank note so devalued that it doesn't even buy you a loaf of bread? They've never experienced anything like this before, so they just assume it can change. It's got to change!

Even after all of this intimidation—the posting of armed agents at the polling stations, arrests, torture, shutting down the newspapers—they know they still defeated Mugabe in the election last year. They voted the MDC into office in all the major cities and then basically voted Morgan Tsvangirai in as president. That not only shocked Mugabe—that shocked Zimbabwean voters. They realized, "Whoa, we are a force." So the country right now contains parallel universes: one is the universe as it ought to be, and the other is the universe as it is, which is Mugabe-ville. In Mugabe-ville, none of the facts that they've created on the ground have translated into much. So the people feel like, "Well, we won the elections, so we're just waiting for the world to come around and recognize it."

It's interesting that even though Mugabe has tried to silence the MDC and the Daily News, those battles are now being fought in court. Do you think the courts in Zimbabwe could actually rule against Mugabe?

Well, the Daily News lawyers believe that will happen because they have to believe it. They have a lot invested in the hope that they will stumble upon a judge who remains independent. And the government has a lot invested in retaining the appearance that the paper was shut down for legal reasons—that it hadn't met registration requirements. There's this crude legalism in Zimbabwe, a pretence of "legality" to everything the government does. It's a very peculiar autocracy. It stands out from other contemporary dictatorships in the lengths it goes to to work through the legal process. Even when it comes to the stealing of the farms, white farmers receive "legal notices," against which the farmers sue on "procedural grounds"—and they're much more likely to succeed than if they sue on the grounds that the stealing of farms should be illegal in and of itself! Everybody is caught up in this whole fiction that the rule of law still holds. And yet, what little inroads that are being made on behalf of human rights are being made in the courts. There's really no other route.

A number of judges have gotten caught up in Mugabe's crimes and have become corrupt; they're kleptocratic and have amassed various farms and other assets. But a number of other judges are, like other citizens, saying, "Wait a minute—what the hell happened to our democracy? What the hell happened to our breadbasket?" Mugabe has forced a number of these judges off of the high court. They got too independent for his taste. But some have survived in the lower courts. So the hope of white farmers, the Daily News journalists, and the Tsvangirai supporters is that their cases will happen to cross the desk of somebody who's in that camp.

It sounds like a crapshoot.

It is a total crapshoot. The poverty and the economic and social breakdown are such that a judge debating his future isn't just saying to himself, "Do I stand by Mugabe to get fringe benefits, or do I stick to my principles?" Many pose the question more starkly, like, "Do I feed my family, or do I starve?" Many are afraid that if they lose their job, they fall prey to all of the ravaging forces in Zimbabwean society—they join the 70-80 percent of the country that's unemployed, waiting in bank queues, trying to somehow scrounge up food.

The day may come, and it may not be far off, when people give up on the courts altogether. And if that day comes, the only option will be for the disgruntled to take to the streets—and that's where you get a very dangerous and potentially violent scenario. I worry about Zimbabweans. They bend, they bend, they bend, they bend—where do the people break? How long can they go on scrounging for food in garbage dumps and using the moisture from sewage drains to plant vegetables? They're losing weight, they're severely malnourished, they rely on humanitarian aid—the supplies of which are shrinking. Where, physically, is the breaking point? When does massive malnutrition become outright starvation? When, politically, do they say "enough" and really rise up?

I wonder if religion has provided a place for people to rise up. Has the Anglican Church spoken out against Mugabe's moral atrocities?

I went to a number of church services while I was there, and I was stunned by the vocalness of local church leaders, by the extent to which they were willing to put themselves on the line, and to politicize their sermons. But those local church leaders who do speak out will tell you that the official church hierarchy, those more closely associated with Mugabe, were mute for a very long time. In fact, there was an amazing church statement issued while I was there by the council of churches and other official leaders, formally apologizing to the people of Zimbabwe for turning their heads away from their suffering, and for not speaking out sooner.

But I don't think the church is going to be a force for revolution—it's a cultural force, a glue for communities that helps insure that people who would otherwise be left behind at least have a place to go to find food. And, it's one of the few places where people feel they can gather and talk. The security act that Mugabe recently passed insures that churches are one of the few places where more than five people can still gather without a permit.

Unfortunately, Mugabe is so determined to maintain control of food supplies himself that churches have to hide them—I visited one church that used its confessional booths to hide little dried fish and beans. You'd think the state would be bending over backwards to make it easy for churches to help feed the people, but Mugabe wants to control them. He treats church leaders like he treats judges—many can be co-opted in terms of church lands, grain, and things that the government has access to that the local people don't. Mugabe seems to believe that every leader of every institution has a price.

We haven't talked about your own brush with Mugabe's government yet—which took place when you were poking around at the Grain Marketing Board. Despite having a surplus of maize and wheat in years past, the GMB has run dry—and they weren't thrilled about your peeking. You wrote that your encounter with them led to a "harrowing car chase." What exactly happened?

It was as scared as I ever remember being in a non-war situation. Which is saying something—I've been very scared on a number of occasions. I was driving in a van with a colleague who had been filming the Grain Marketing Board Warehouse as we drove by. We thought we had been subtle. Suddenly, somewhere between a half dozen and a dozen men in a white pickup truck pulled up behind us. Ordinarily, we would have pulled over and handed over the tape, which wasn't exactly juicy stuff, but in the back seat of our vehicle was a Zimbabwean farm worker, and we were afraid that he would get into serious trouble for talking to journalists. So we decided to make a run for it. Our driver quickly revealed a certain amount of experience in such situations, and the whole thing turned into something of a "Starsky and Hutch" chase, at 80 miles an hour. They'd give a burst of gas and come alongside us, motioning furiously for us to pull over, then fade back, then come up again, and fade back.

I thought we were either going to crash or get machine-gunned—I couldn't imagine how else the sequence would end. And I remember thinking to myself, I can't believe I'm going to die over maize stocks. Because in any society like this, when something means that much to those in power, they just don't lose. And they always use guns.

But these men never did use guns, and eventually they gave up. That was when I first really understood how unusual Zimbabwe is. It's very violent and very coercive and confrontational and repressive, but it is not yet a gun culture. Many white farmers, too, describe being thrown off of their land without the use of firearms.

Land reform has emerged as one of the biggest issues in Zimbabwe right now—and it is the first "step" you highlight of Mugabe's program of destruction. Even though Mugabe has made a real mess of land reform, you write in the piece that a "well-ordered, selective re-distribution program" is necessary. What might that involve?

That's a great question. Everyone you meet in Zimbabwe now, and certainly every white farmer, says "we all agree" that land reform is necessary. But saying that you agree on ends is one of the oldest tricks in the book. There's this prickly set of questions about the means to that end.

In Zimbabwe there are a number of proposals on the table that are quite reasonable. One is the idea of one man, one farm—so that any farmer with more than one farm sells those extra farms for reasonable compensation. Or another proposal would allow for multiple-farm holders who would have to pay a tithe for the privilege. Money would be gathered to help the landless, and black farm ownership would be incentivized with tax programs, apprenticeships, and the like. Any land-reform program would, once and for all, also have to provide for the legitimate war veterans of the civil war, as they are a political force that will need to be involved in any long-term settlement.

Now that Mugabe has already taken the white farms, redistribution becomes much more complicated. Because now you have to ask yourself how you can start the whole process over again. What do you do about the people who are now squatting on these farms—do you just go in and bulldoze their concrete huts down? And a lot of white farmers are going to want to leave now anyway, because they're never going to feel safe again after what they've been through. But they need compensation of some kind. And where does that compensation come from? Well, I think Mugabe's palaces are a good place to start.

I wonder if Great Britain could get involved in some way. As a recent colonial power, they gave 70 million dollars back in 1980 to help Zimbabwe get off its feet, and they were prepared to help again in 1998 before Mugabe went off the deep end. Could you speak more broadly about the involvement or responsibility of former colonial powers in Africa today?

Yeah, I mean it's really tricky. There's always a smack of paternalism involved. It's, "Oh, Tony Blair to the rescue. Here I come with my Windsor fortune to bail out 'the natives' who can't sort out their own mess." In much of southern Africa, these initiatives have often been put forth with the wrong tone. On the other hand, though it's in nobody's interest to boast about it, the British, the Europeans, and the Americans are paying to keep Zimbabwe fed right now. So when it comes to food aid and other forms of investment, nobody complains. But when it comes to something as prickly as land reform, it's just really tricky because the white farmers are seen to be the vestige of the colonial empire.

It would be ideal if the response could be forged through the African Union, or a southern regional organization, with the backing of Western powers. It's so important that these regional solutions are generated. Not only because of our soiled hands in so many of these countries, but also because of our general indifference to these kinds of places. And so it's really time for local actors to start acting. Thabo Mbeki (the president of South Africa) is taking a strong stand on Burundi and on the Congo, but he has turned away from Mugabe's brutality. I think it's just too close to home. Not only geographically, but because Mbeki is the leader of a liberation party, like Mugabe's, that someday soon, too, will have outstayed its welcome. And I think Mbeki is terrified that the same kind of future awaits his party in South Africa.

What about U.S. involvement? When President Bush made his tour of Africa back in July, he talked about the problems in Liberia and Zimbabwe, but only sent troops to Liberia. Should the U.S. also intervene militarily in Zimbabwe?

If we needed a reminder of how dangerous military intervention is, I think we've all gotten that reminder in Iraq. My basic feeling about military intervention is that it should be a last resort, undertaken only to stave off large-scale bloodshed. I think the trigger for it, on the humanitarian side, anyway, has to be something on a mass scale like genocide. Tony Blair said, "Well, I would go to Zimbabwe if I could, but I can't. So let me go to Iraq." That level of trigger-happiness is unwise because of all the risks inherent in military intervention. The visible evidence through history is that the most successful transitions come when they are organic. Neither the African Union nor the West has even begun to exhaust high-level diplomatic options.

What about diplomacy? As you pointed out, the U.S. hasn't exerted much pressure in that arena, either.

We haven't even tried. Actually, Colin Powell wrote a very appropriate and unusually "undiplomatic" Op/Ed in The New York Times, laying out the human-rights case against Mugabe and talking about the steps the U.S. and Europe were taking and how we needed help from our African allies. But then President Bush completely pulled the rug out from underneath Powell. At a joint press conference with Mbeki on his Africa trip, Bush was asked if he had raised the issue of Zimbabwe with Mbeki, and Bush said, "This man knows what he's doing. Who am I to tell this man how to run his country or run his neighborhood?"

Wait a minute. Zimbabwe's human-rights record is the business of the world. The U.S. has diplomatic interaction with Zimbabwe, and with pretty much every other country on the planet, pretty much every minute of every day. And so the question is, as we are deciding what our policies should be, are we factoring in the welfare of Zimbabweans? Are we factoring in the abuse record of the leader? Are we leveraging the clout we have in terms of foreign investment, trade, diplomatic options, food aid? We have to fashion our diplomacy not just around the abuser country, but with any other countries that might have more influence. Right now, I don't think we are.

If the U.S. did apply diplomatic pressure in Zimbabwe, would it work?

Honestly, diplomatic intervention on human rights is pretty hard to do these days because the Bush Administration has so little credibility. Because of our hostility to international institutions, human-rights treaties, and multilateralism, it's really difficult for the U.S. to speak out on behalf of human rights. We have to understand that we're not always the best lead actor when it comes to advancing these principles—and that's something that American diplomats have a very difficult time understanding. We have the tradition of not ranking human rights and the welfare of foreign citizens high enough in our set of priorities, or on the occasion that we do rank human rights high, we're like a bull in a china shop, not understanding the ways in which our decisions in other policy areas really affect and undermine our ability to get what we want in the human-rights arena. We need something between the extreme of condescension and know-it-allness on the one hand, and outright indifference on the other.

Generally speaking, what should the U.S. policy be in terms of when to intervene abroad on behalf of human rights?

I'm very wary of absolutist doctrines of humanitarian intervention—there's always a balancing act that needs to take place. The question is how can you aid a country in its efforts to liberalize in a gradual fashion, so that the reformers can get courts set up and lawyers and judges trained, so that minority rights are guaranteed in the constitution, so that the military is placed under civilian control, so that citizens get multiple sources of news and opinion, so that people can vote their conscience in a secure environment. These are all excruciating questions. I mean, we don't even have the balance right in our own country. It's not just as simple as saying, "Yeah, we're all for human rights."

According to the newspapers, Mugabe got really sick on October 23, and has been sent to a hospital in South Africa.

That's what they say. But there's a big debate as to whether he's really there.

If his illness is severe and he passes away, what will happen next in Zimbabwe?

As with Cubans when Castro dies, I think there's gong to be a really conflicted reaction among local people. I mean, Mugabe is their liberation leader. And he has destroyed their country. So there's going to be a sense of liberation from the liberator, yet mourning—because he brought them something that they wanted and deserved. When you are the father of a country, the people cut you a lot of slack. Nobody who follows Mugabe will get the same benefit of the doubt. Even though Mugabe is despised in the cities and even though people talk about his palaces and his trips and his jewels and his opulence, they still have a tiny little soft spot for what he did for them. His successors will be judged strictly on the state of the country, which is disastrous.

I wonder if you could tell me about how you become interested in human rights initially?

I graduated from college in 1992, and that was the year that there were these dreadful images coming out of Europe of emaciated Muslim men behind bars. In Europe, fifty years after the Holocaust. Those images were haunting to me. Out of college, I went to work in Washington as an intern for a man named Mort Abromowitz, who was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was completely consumed with what was going on in Bosnia. Working for him, I learned much more about what was happening there. And the more I saw, and the more of those images I encountered, the more helpless and hapless I felt. We just weren't doing anything about it. I had no skills, but I could string sentences together—I had been a sports reporter in college. So I moved over to Bosnia in 1993 and became a freelance journalist, a year into the war.

What was that like?

It was easy to break in, because it was a long war and it wasn't a place where more-senior correspondents wanted to spend time. At that time it felt really dangerous, although I must say that Chechnya, Iraq, and other wars that have happened since then seem a lot worse. There was a community of us who were in Bosnia who believed this was our Spanish civil war somehow—we just really believed that this was really unpardonable, and that the world was letting this happen.

I was there for about two and a half years, and that sort of planted the seed that in turn got me interested in ethnic conflict and in genocide, and how it relates to U.S. foreign policy. And that's the place on the spectrum that I find myself most drawn to now—trying to understand why the world stands by and allows large numbers of preventable deaths. I gravitate toward places where the stakes seem really high in terms of human life, and where there actually seem to be things that the outside world can do.

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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Steve Grove is an editorial intern at The Atlantic.

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