In a farewell news conference, the State Department's chief African-affairs expert Walter Kansteiner urged the nations of southern Africa to do more to bring about change in Zimbabwe, a country he said is "on the brink of disaster."
Mr. Kansteiner, who is stepping down from the Africa post to return to private industry, says he regrets that more was not done during his two-year tenure to improve the lives of the people of Zimbabwe.
The assistant secretary, a frequent and vocal critic of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, told reporters at a final press briefing that civil society in Zimbabwe is "hanging by a thread" after years of repression by authorities in Harare.
Mr. Kansteiner called for a "combination of carrots and sticks" by the international community to convince Mr. Mugabe and his ZANU-PF to relent in its increasingly authoritarian rule.
He said perhaps more sticks should be brought to bear against the Harare government, though he stopped short of advocating new international sanctions, which have already frozen the assets of and blocked travel by Mr. Mugabe and close associates.
Mr. Kansteiner said the Bush administration looks to Zimbabwe's neighbors to take the lead to "cajole, push and encourage" change in that country and said he thinks those countries, however belatedly, have come to recognize the problem the Zimbabwean situation poses to the region. "I think it has taken a long time for them to acknowledge that problem, quite frankly. But I think that there is a recognition that this is a country in the midst of their neighborhood that is highly problematic. It is not only problematic for the people of Zimbabwe; i.e. there is no independent press, there is in fact justice that is manipulated against certain individuals, there are indeed food shortages. There is 78 percent unemployment. I mean it is a country on the brink of disaster," he said.
Mr. Kansteiner said there is inevitably a "spill-over effect" to the rest of the region from a country with such dramatic and drastic problems.
On other African issues. Mr. Kansteiner said former Liberian President Charles Taylor, in exile in Nigeria since stepping down in August, must eventually face the war crimes charges brought against him by a U.N.-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone.
Mr. Kansteiner said that while Mr. Taylor openly boasted, at the time of his departure, that he would continue to be a factor in Liberian politics, his actual influence in the country has been declining steadily. "Every day that Charles Taylor is out of Liberia, his influence wanes, every day. And now with the new transitional government that has been installed, that ability to leverage from outside is diminished that much more. So my angst about him literally drops every day. That does not mean we do not need to watch him, we need to watch him like a hawk," he said.
The assistant secretary said he thinks the situation in Ivory Coast, where a French-mediated agreement halted a civil conflict last January, will be stabilized - provided leaders in that country stick to the terms of the peace plan.
He also urged the Sudanese parties to, in his words, "stay the course" and not allow the momentum leading to a final solution of that long-running civil conflict by years-end to expire.
Mr. Kansteiner said achievements in U.S. Africa policy during his tenure included conflict resolution, the approval by Congress of billions of dollars to fight HIV-AIDS in Africa, progress on democracy building and human rights in numerous African states, environmental action such as the U.S.-backed Congo Basin Initiative, and progress in moving African states into the global economy though sovereign credit ratings.