Zimbabwe is on the ropes – What the world can do to help.

Forget it. Southern Africa’s leaders have once again issued the octogenarian despot carte blanche to do what he likes.

Here’s the dismal background. Earlier this year, Zimbabwe’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won the most seats in parliamentary elections. Its leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the presidential election. But Mugabe controls the army, police and other security services — so his Zanu-PF party still runs (or rather destroys) the country.

Nine weeks ago, as hyperinflation hit at least 11 million percent and with over half the population requiring food aid, Southern African leaders forced an agreement between Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai. Mr. Tsvangirai’s party was to get 13 ministries, with three going to a splinter faction of the MDC. Zanu-PF was to get 15. Mugabe awarded most of the key ministries, including control of the army, to his own party.

The MDC insisted on controlling the Home Affairs Ministry, which oversees the police. Without some degree of control over the security services the opposition rightly believed that any political resolution would only be rhetorical.

But Zanu-PF refused to give up Home Affairs, since the generals behind Mugabe never intended on relinquishing any power. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s disastrous slide continues. Informed sources in Harare tell me that probably only 6.5 million people remain in the country, half the population of four years ago. Over five million Zimbabweans have taken refuge in South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia alone.

For those who remain, the prospects are dire. According to MDC estimates, which independent experts do not challenge, a million people will starve in the coming year if food aid is not ramped up and crops are not planted before the end of this year. Yet no one has seeds or fertilizer or fuel. A political agreement was essential to allow donors to bring these necessities back into the country, alongside short-run food aid. But Mugabe ignored his original agreement to share power — and Southern Africa’s leaders gave him a pass.

In a disgraceful passing of the buck, Tomaz Salomao, the head of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which organized Sunday’s summit, announced that Home Affairs should be "co-managed" by two ministers, one from MDC and one from ZANU-PF. This means that SADC approves of Mugabe’s party retaining control of all the security services — though hundreds of Zimbabweans have been killed by the army and police this year.

All observers I’ve spoken with agree that SADC is forcing Mr. Tsvangirai’s opposition party to accept a minor, largely symbolic role in the new government, which Mugabe will now feel emboldened to form this week. Thus, it will be business as usual for the murderous regime.

Mr. Tsvangirai only agreed to the original deal because of the humanitarian crisis. But he says he will not accept the SADC compromise. "I invite Zanu-PF to be part of the solution but we will not join them to be part of the problem," Mr. Tsvangirai told me on Wednesday.

SADC leaders are cynically casting Mr. Tsvangirai — not Mugabe! — as the intransigent. Many of these leaders are quite autocratic and don’t like upstart parties that win elections democratically. Perhaps they fear what has happened to Mugabe will happen to them one day.

Unfortunately, Seretse Ian Kharma, the Botswanan president, could not attend Sunday’s summit. He has spoken out against Mugabe, and has previously demanded fresh elections and a real power-sharing deal. But his deputy did not step forward to oppose the agreement.

With Zimbabwe facing a famine, Mugabe will reach out to donors for aid. Earlier this week the World Food Program said it would have to reduce food aid to four million Zimbabweans due to a shortage of funds.

How should the Bush administration respond? It should continue to help with food — but it should also provide funds directly to Mr. Tsvangirai, so the embattled opposition leader can tour the region and embarrass leaders into honoring the original deal.

Mr. Bate is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. SOURCE: Wall ST Journal