/By Bret Stephens/
When the University of Massachusetts decided in 2008 to rescind the honorary degree it had awarded Robert Mugabe 22 years earlier, it noted that Zimbabwe’s dictator had once been seen “as a force for democracy and reform.” Even then the self-deception was breathtaking.
Not long after ending white rule and coming to power, Mugabe — who may (or may not) have been gently deposed from power this week in a soft coup — unleashed a war of atrocity against his ethnic rivals in the Ndebele tribe, promising that he would pursue his enemies “until all dissidents are eliminated,” according to a 1983 report by Alan Cowell in The Times.
“The soldiers came to our village,” Cowell reported that one elderly Ndebele woman said. “They burned our huts and called for the young men who had left the army. Then they killed 15 of them.”
The scale of Mugabe’s killing, estimated as high as 20,000, might not have been known to the good people of Amherst in 1986: Mass graves would continue to be unearthed for years afterward. But there was no mystery about his methods. The real mystery is why Western liberals and progressives so often fall for the Mugabes of the world, and why they seem to learn so little from successive and inevitable disenchantments.
When will they stop confusing national independence with individual freedom, liberation with liberty?
In the case of Mugabe, it took some 20 years of misrule for Western governments to cut him off. Around the turn of the century he set Zimbabwe on a course to economic ruin and widespread starvation by forcing white farmers from their land. Even then he had his apologists. “Thank you, Mr. Mugabe: Zimbabwe’s forced land redistribution led to huge controversy — but it has transformed the lives of thousands of small farmers,” went a telling 2013 headline in Britain’s left-leaning Independent newspaper.
As for the other Mugabes, Fidel Castro tyrannized Cuba for decades, yet was paid flattering tributes on his death last year, including from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Irish President Michael Higgins. Yasir Arafat’s turn on the world stage began and ended in terrorism, intermixed with corruption and human-rights abuses. Yet the rais never lacked for admirers on the left, and his final illness moved at least one BBC reporter to tears.
The result has been decades of moral embarrassment for the left, though it’s rarely acknowledged and only occasionally examined. Being progressive, as the conservative saying goes, means never having to say you are sorry. If the Canadian activist Naomi Klein has any regrets about her fervent championship of the Bolivarian Revolution, or the left-wing economist Joseph Stiglitz has any second thoughts about his close ties to the ruinous Argentine government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, it would be fascinating to hear them.
But the result has also entailed a train of disasters for Zimbabweans, Venezuelans, Palestinians and others. Mugabe and Chávez did not mine their Marxism from native soil. The idea of national self-determination — a phrase “simply loaded with dynamite,” as Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, memorably put it — is a European one. In their bid to free their countries of the shackles of Western colonialism, the caudillos and their court intellectuals have been nothing if not faithful to the West’s worst ideas.
Ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to write a constitution for Corsica in 1765, Western thinkers have been tempted by the prospect of influence abroad, along with the power that comes with it, particularly when both are denied to them at home.
The temptation is especially great because the influence comes without responsibility for the consequences, much less any suffering from them. The development expert proposes a five-year plan, but goes home to Washington at the end of her two-year assignment. The visiting economist calls for heavy deficit spending or a currency devaluation, but collects his speaking fee in dollars and doesn’t live through the eventual default. As things get worse, he can always say: They took my advice the wrong way.
Zimbabwe has been charting a dark course for so long that it would be unfair to blame anyone except Mugabe and his circle for the pass it’s now reached.
But Mugabe also had his apologists and admirers, and Zimbabwe’s tragedy is just a fuller version of a post-colonial story of disastrous ideological experiments accompanied by foreigners who cheered those experiments and then looked the other way when they failed. There needs to be a reckoning with them, too. The world’s poorest countries deserve better than to be the petri dish for Western experts who know too little and a field of fantasy for Western progressives who dream too much.