07/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fault Lines Emanating From Zimbabwe

The vetoed sanctions resolution against Zimbabwe at the UN Security Council on Friday has exposed the fault lines of international tensions than divide the West from Africa, Russia from the West and the United States from South Africa.

The surprise Chinese and Russian vetoes provoked sharp words in the usually staid Security Council as tensions broke out into the open. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad publicly bashed South Africa as the main culprit in the failed Anglo-American bid to punish Robert Mugabe and his cronies with sanctions on travel, finances and arms.

Unprompted, he told reporters: "I want to say a word or two about the performance of South Africa." In diplomatic parlance critiquing another nation's' "performance" is fighting words.

"It was particularly disturbing," Khalilzad said, "given the history of South Africa ... where international sanctions played an important role in encouraging transformation [from apartheid] for its representative to be protecting the horrible regime in Zimbabwe."

He dismissed the South African argument that sanctions would derail talks in Pretoria between Mugabe's Zanu PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Khalilzad proclaimed: "There isn't anything serious going on in terms of the negotiations. The South African effort, President Mbeki's effort so far, has been a failure."

Mugabe stole the presidential election and has refused to seat the parliament because MDC won a majority back in March. The MDC boycotted the presidential run-off after state violence killed dozens of MDC supporters.

Khalilzad praised ANC President Jacob Zuma and retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu's criticism of Mugabe. That was a slap in the face of Mbeki, whom Khalilzad said is "out of touch with the trends inside his own country and that is a source of disappointment given the history of South Africa." He accused Mbeki of "protecting Mr. Mugabe, and ... working hand in glove with him at times while he, Mugabe, uses violent means to fragment and weaken the opposition."

Dumisani Kumalo, South African ambassador, told the Security Council that the African Union summit meeting two weeks ago had decided against "any action that may negatively impact on the climate for dialogue." Therefore South Africa joined Russia, China, Vietnam and Libya in voting no, he said. Nine countries voted in favor. Indonesia abstained.

Marian L. Tupy, an analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, told me the outburst by Khalilzad symbolized a crisis in US-South African relations.

"It is common knowledge inside the United States that relations with South Africa are at their very lowest ebb," Tupy said. "There is no love lost between these two countries. It is not just because of George Bush, but because South Africa has never missed an opportunity to contradict and accuse the United States -- which did so much to help end apartheid -- of wishing Africa ill."

The failure of African leaders so far to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis has given the West an opening to intervene, according to Emira Woods, an African specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

"I still think the solution will have to come out of an African context," Woods told me, but it will have to happen without the pressure of international sanctions on Mugabe.

Woods predicted he wouldn't walk away from the negotiating table, even after this victory over UN sanctions, because Mugabe is keenly aware of the coming international arrest warrant on Monday for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on charges of genocide. That acts as a sanctions substitute, she said.

"Had the sanctions been put forward by anyone other than the U.S. and the UK" Africa may have backed them and put pressure on Mugabe, said Woods.

But the legacy of colonialism has made it difficult for African leaders to recognize that their own leaders, as well as colonial ones, can be oppressive, Tupy said.

Boniface Chidyausiku, Zimbabwean envoy to the UN, blamed his country's economic crisis on existing American and European sanctions, which he called "basically an expression of imperialist conquest." Zimbabwe sees the issue as a bilateral fight with the UK, which tried to drag the UN into the fray.

An exultant Chidyausiku said after the vote: "The American ambassador was boasting about having nine votes and he is a very disappointed man tonight. It's the arrogance of the Americans to think they can rule the world and they cannot." Zimbabwe was still winning the war of independence against Britain, Chidyausiku said.

Zimbabwe's information minister hailed nations that had blocked "international racism disguised as multilateral action at the UN."

Outside the Security Council on Friday I asked Khalilzad whether colonialism's legacy had complicated the U.S. effort to address the Zimbabwe crisis with targeted UN sanctions.

"Of course history has not been a friend to the people of Africa, but you've got to get on, make progress ... and you can't be forever held down by reference to the history of colonialism," Khalilzad told me. "There almost is a sense of deficit of expectation from local leaders."

Khalilzad also repeated the myth that America is an anti-colonial country because it overthrew British imperial rule. Since around 1898 and in the post-WWII period the US has certainly not been anti-colonial. Still, there are no demonstrable US economic interests in Zimbabwe. Britain has been incensed since white farmers were usurped since 1995 in a program that has not greatly benefited the Zimbabwean economy.

It should be possible to agree with the the U.S. and UK on punishing the Mugabe dictatorship, while also criticizing US and British actions in Iraq and elsewhere.

Tupy said Africa's concept of victimhood and blaming the West was on trial in Zimbabwe. "Many African countries are run as badly, if not worse than Zimbabwe, and these leaders have even less legitimacy than Robert Mugabe," he said. "To speak out against him would undermine their own legitimacy to govern."

To admit that African leaders themselves are responsible for many of the continent's troubles could undermine the rationale for international aid and debt relief to continue, Tupy said.

As a Security Council issue, Zimbabwe has suddenly impacted bilateral relations between the major powers far from Africa.

The veto by Russian incensed the Americans and British because Russia had agreed to a G-8 summit communiqué in Japan last week to take "further steps, inter alia introducing financial and other measures against those individuals responsible for violence."

"The U-turn in the Russian position is particularly surprising and disturbing," Khalilzad said in the council chamber. "The Russian performance here today raises questions about its reliability as a G8 partner."

British Ambassador John Sawers said: "Russia's action is, frankly, inexplicable."

"There were indications that China and Russia would not go along because of pressure from South Africa," Woods told me. "The signals from Mbeki and other African leaders during that G8 meeting did not make it clear that the resolution would pass."

It was a bold step for Moscow and China to take for the sake of keeping the Pretoria talks going, some diplomats said.

But both countries were also acting to prevent a council precedent. The UN Charter's taboo on interference in a nation's internal affairs has been eroded since council intervention in civil wars in Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia last decade and more recently in Kosovo.

This resolution would have represented the first time the Security Council weighed in on a matter involving elections results of a sovereign state.

Russia may also have been reacting to the US missile defense deal with the Czech Republic the day before that prompted a threat from Moscow. There are also ongoing US-Russian and Russian-UK tensions in energy-rich Central Asia.

With the Beijing Olympics to open soon many diplomats believed China wouldn't risk angering the West with a veto. But China's growing commercial interests in Africa have increased its assertiveness on the continent and its reluctance to criticize African trading partners.

According to the BBC, China has gone so far as to violate a UN arms embargo on Sudan to supply the government in its genocidal war in Darfur.

The U.S. and British vowed to bring Zimbabwe sanctions back to the Security Council in due course. In the meantime, Africa has bought itself time to show the world it can indeed put its own house in order by solving the Zimbabwe crisis without outside interference.