The people of Zimbabwe reacted to the death of ex-dictator Robert Mugabe with either indifference or a bitter “good riddance”. However, in the neocon-ridden precincts of the US foreign policy establishment, the reaction was different – there his passing was mourned. The US Embassy in Harare even tweeted its heartfelt condolences. These divergent reactions to Mugabe’s death are harshly illuminated by Justin’s column from April 11, 2008, describing his personal encounter with Mugabe at a conference in Malaysia.
Originally published April 11, 2008
Two years ago, when I was in Kuala Lumpur as a guest of the Perdana Peace Forum, I had the singularly unpleasant experience of meeting Robert Mugabe. Well, “meeting” him is hardly the word: rather, I espied him, sitting directly across from me, at the opening banquet of the conference. Turning to the person next to me, I asked: “Isn’t that guy sitting over there Robert Mugabe?” My friend squinted, and replied: “Sure looks like it.”
The table was loaded down with lots of really good food: Malaysian fare, with all its wonderful color and variety. But I seemed to have lost my appetite rather suddenly.
“You mean I have to eat at the same table with that murdering despot?” As is my wont, I was speaking rather loudly. Mugabe looked up, and straight at me. I felt like giving him the finger, but, instead, I got up and exited the room. Better not to make a scene quite yet.
I was upset. I had no idea Mugabe would be attending – he showed up uninvited – and if I had I would never have agreed to come. Yet there I was, 8,000 miles from home, already committed to speak to the conference, and, although Mugabe was nowhere listed as a speaker or official guest, word of his presence would soon get out. What to do?
As exhausted as I was from the 15-hour flight, I was quite prepared to get on a plane, and head home – and that’s exactly what I determined to do if the conference organizers could not be dissuaded from allowing Mugabe’s participation. As it was, Mugabe was seated right next to the prime mover of the conference, ex-Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, and Mugabe was constantly whispering in his ear, much to the former’s apparent annoyance. There was something distinctly reptilian about the African tyrant’s visage and general demeanor: at any moment, I fully expected him to flick a foot-long tongue at a passing fly.
After the banquet, and during it, I made my opinion of Mugabe unmistakably clear, and lobbied the other speakers to appeal to the conference organizers, and threaten a walkout if necessary. Most agreed with me on the general subject of Mugabe: only George Galloway disdained to join the rest of us in opposing the presence of a man whose name has become a synonym for African despot. Galloway, asked his opinion on the matter, scowled and declared that it wasn’t our place to criticize Mugabe – only George W. Bush and the “imperialists” were fair game. However, everyone else – former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday, former UN assistant secretary-general Hans von Sponeck, Daniel Ellsberg, and anti-nuclear-arms activist and writer Helen Caldicott. – were quite disturbed by Mugabe’s presence, and made this very clear to the Perdana organization. The result was that an event at which Mugabe was supposed to speak was canceled, and – a day before the Zimbabwean President fled the scene in a huff – I had a run-in with his “bodyguards,” who thought they could intimidate me. Boy, were they mistaken!
It was actually kind of funny, albeit a bit on the scary side, when three or four of these thugs – big, ugly-looking brutes to a man – suddenly sat down at my table at a luncheon and tried to push their weight around. Those poor guys soon found themselves an unwilling audience for a lecture on the basic principles of libertarianism, and why their country is an economic basket case. Since they couldn’t just start clubbing me to death right there in plain sight – although I don’t think they would have hesitated had they found me on the streets of Kuala Lumpur – they faced the choice of either retreating or allowing themselves to be bored to death. They wisely chose the former course.
At any rate, the whole subject of Mugabe comes up now because he’s in trouble on his own turf, with his ruling ZANU-PF party apparently defeated in the recent election, in spite of the widespread violence and intimidation engaged in by Mugabe’s militants – or, perhaps, because of it. Although a 165,000 percent inflation rate may also have something to do with it.
Yet Mugabe clings to power, while his thugs have taken possession of ballot boxes and his government refuses to release the official results, although everyone knows he and his party were trounced. The campaign of violence embarked on by ZANU-PF has intensified, and the opposition has accused Mugabe of pulling off a de facto coup.
In his long and bloody career as first and only President of Zimbabwe, the 84-year-old Mugabe has engaged in a systematic campaign of murder, racist demagoguery, and wholesale looting to maintain himself and his cronies in power. Not since Idi Amin has such a bloody-minded sociopath and mass murderer arisen out of the dark heart of Africa. The United States, which doesn’t mind supporting the continent’s worst dictators, from Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, won’t touch Mugabe with a ten-foot pole. Indeed, listening to the Voice of America in Mugabe-land can get you in trouble with the secret police. The US, the EU, the UN, leaders of neighboring countries – all have expressed varying levels of disapproval as Mugabe’s international stock has plummeted to new lows.
Yet he has always managed to retain at least one ally, through thick and thin, one that remains loyal even now, and that is the government of Israel. They have been a steady supplier of military equipment, including riot control tanks and water cannon, which has been used to suppress the democratic opposition and keep the country under his iron grip. Links between Mugabe and Mossad, Israeli’s intelligence agency, go back years.
In 2002, one Ari Ben Menashe – employed by Israeli military intelligence from 1977 to at least 1987, in spite of the Israeli government’s denials of any connection – shot what was purported to be covertly filmed videotape of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai supposedly discussing a plot to assassinate Mugabe. This was triumphantly broadcast on Zimbabwe state television on the eve of elections, followed by a fresh wave of repression aimed at pro-democracy activists. The tape turned out to have been doctored, but the broadcast accomplished its task: providing a momentary rationale for Mugabe’s reign of terror, which continues to this day.
So well-known is Israel’s unstinting support for Mugabe that the democratic opposition has accused the government of bringing in computer “consultants” from the Mossad to manipulate voter rolls. (Which certainly surprised at least one Israeli software producer.)
What in the name of all that’s holy is Israel, a democratic state founded by socialist idealists, doing supporting one of the most reviled despots on earth – one who, furthermore, is no friend of Israel, at least officially. The answer may be found in certain Israeli-based economic interests, which, in turn, could have an inordinate influence on that nation’s Africa policy – specifically in the case of Zimbabwe and the “Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Unfortunately, Israel’s policy in regard to Zimbabwe is not the exception that proves the rule: it is business as usual.
The moral depravity of Israel’s African policies are highlighted by the close cooperation that existed between Tel Aviv and the apartheid regime of South Africa. Israel provided the expertise, experience, and technology, as well as other covert military aid, which enabled white Pretoria to hold off the African National Congress for as long as it did. And, as Jimmy Carter and others have pointed out, Israel has replicated its former ally’s policy toward black South Africans in the occupied territories.
In reviewing the facts, it is hard to come up with a single despotic government that hasn’t received some sort of aid or assistance from the Israelis: Colombia, where “former” Mossad agents train government anti-terrorist units and right-wing paramilitaries – El Salvador, where arms and expertise provided to successive right-wing juntas helped stabilize these US-supported regimes – Guatemala, where “former” Israeli military and intelligence officers provided security for the notoriously repressive Guatemalan military dictatorship – and the pattern is repeated throughout South and Central America.
The list goes on: Iran, under the rule of the Shah Reza Pahlavi, was the scene of the notorious SAVAK’s worst crimes: the Iranian secret police reportedly were schooled in techniques of torture by the Mossad.
What is it with the Israelis? Why do they have a predilection for murderous tyrants? What seems, at first, like a pattern of sheer moral perversity may be broken down, in specific cases, into discrete economic, strategic, and diplomatic objectives. Yet one has to be astonished – and more than a little horrified – at the complete amorality that guides the Israeli government’s actions around the world.
This record of Israeli support for dictators and despots worldwide is, perhaps, part of the reason for that country’s growing unpopularity on a global scale: however, in the US, where the Israel lobby wields inordinate power in government and the media, it’s quite a different story. Here, support for Israel is in the 70 percent range – a testament to the supposedly nonexistent power of the Lobby, and the relative ignorance of and indifference to world affairs exhibited by most Americans.