While we're studying for midterms, Zimbabweans are starving and bleeding. The anti-colonialist-turned-dictator Robert Mugabe has ruled their country for decades, and the first serious chance for a transfer of power since his takeover has coincided with the worst humanitarian crisis in the country's recent history.
Zimbabwe, once one of Africa's foremost food exporters, has been economically desolate since Mugabe expropriated the land holdings of white farmers, beginning in 2000. Output has plummeted under erratic management by members of the ruling Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front party.
To make matters worse, the government has been wildly over-printing new Zimbabwean dollars and exchanging them by the crate for more stable foreign currencies.
The result has been a cruel paradox: mind-boggling hyperinflation (the government's estimate for the past year alone is 231 million percent, and the real figure is probably much higher) along with a shortage of hard currency. Banks have imposed strict limits on daily withdrawals, and many Zimbabweans have to wait in line for hours just to get out enough cash for daily bus fare.
A humanitarian catastrophe is looming. Half the country's population is near starvation, and the aid agency principally responsible for Zimbabwe is facing a $140 million shortfall for next year.
This may not sound like much to the citizens of a country that just committed to buying up $350 billion in bad stocks and loans, but compared with Zimbabwe's surfeit just a few years ago it adds up to a staggering tragedy.
This spring, there was a brief glimmer of hope for responsible governance in Zimbabwe from the presidential campaign of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Though handicapped by a widespread ZANU-PF fraud operation, he won a clear plurality over Mugabe in presidential elections last March.
But Tsvangirai pulled out of the runoff after dozens of his supporters were killed in clashes with Mugabe's partisans. Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa, intervened to secure a power-sharing arrangement, but this past weekend Mugabe put it in jeopardy by handing the three most crucial ministries -- defense, finance and home affairs (which includes the police) -- to his own loyalists.
Mbeki has headed back to Zimbabwe to try to salvage the deal. But without an official government post, he can bring little pressure to bear on Mugabe -- certainly not enough to satisfy Tsvangirai, who wants to put his own allies in charge of both the finance and home affairs ministries.
As with Mugabe's past misdeeds, the West's reaction to the latest setback has been principally punitive. But there isn't much left to threaten with.
The European Union has vowed to apply fresh sanctions if Mugabe doesn't allow the opposition a significant role in the government, but the foreign-held assets of the regime's key players have already been frozen, and further sanctions are likely to be felt most acutely by common Zimbabweans, not their rulers. The regime cannot be delegitimized to death.
On the bright side, Mugabe and his cronies are unabashedly venal, and they haven't been coy about holding Zimbabwe for ransom. Lift previously imposed financial penalties, the government has said, and it may listen to reason.
This highlights an attractive alternative to ramping up sanctions: Bribe the jerks with their own money. The U.S. and the EU can agree to release assets stashed within their jurisdictions once the regime and the opposition hammer out a mutually acceptable deal. (Promises to lift economic sanctions and resume aid are already on the table.)
Direct material incentives (and the chanc for a symbolic triumph over the West, may help to convince Mugabe and his fellow anti-colonial veterans to loosen their hold.
Even with their palms greased, they will be reluctant, and Tsvangirai may have to accept heavy compromises-legal immunity for high-ranking thugs and kleptocrats if he gets the home affairs ministry, or a massive slowdown of dollar production instead of control of the finance ministry. But even these modest gains may be out of reach without an added bonus for Mugabe and his closest minions.
Ideally, it won't be necessary. Perhaps Mbeki's latest expedition will be miraculously successful, or the new round of sanctions will unexpectedly break the regime's resolve; perhaps the better angels of Mugabe's nature will be roused as the people he once claimed to fight for slide deeper and deeper into poverty and misery.
Regardless, the West should be considering its options carefully. Paying off Mugabe and approving a deal that might shield thieves and murderers from prosecution could leave a bad taste in our mouths. But moral punctiliousness and thirst for vicarious revenge are no excuse for allowing continued suffering.