FOR THOSE who argue that democracies are natural allies in international affairs, South Africa poses a vexing challenge. Since that country began serving a term on the U.N. Security Council last year, the government of President Thabo Mbeki has consistently allied itself with the world's rogue states and against the Western democracies. It has defended Iran's nuclear program and resisted sanctions against it; shielded Sudan and Burma from the sort of pressure the United Nations once directed at the apartheid regime; and enthusiastically supported one-sided condemnations of Israel by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Now Mr. Mbeki's perverse and immoral policy is reaching its nadir -- in South Africa's neighbor Zimbabwe. The government of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is inarguably one of the world's worst: It has wrecked the economy, triggering food shortages that have driven millions of refugees into neighboring states, and used brute force to stem what would otherwise be overwhelming opposition. On March 29, the regime staged presidential and parliamentary elections and lost both by a wide margin. Rather than concede, Mr. Mugabe has refused to release the presidential vote count, called for a recount in parliamentary districts won by the opposition and launched another violent campaign to intimidate those who voted against him.
Every Western democratic government has condemned Mr. Mugabe's maneuvering, and even many Africans have appeared to lose patience with the 84-year-old strongman. That he remains in office is due mainly to Mr. Mbeki, who has used South Africa's considerable influence and prestige to bolster Mr. Mugabe. Last weekend, when Zambia's president called an emergency meeting of the Southern African Development Community, which he chairs, to consider the situation in Zimbabwe, Mr. Mbeki flew to Harare for a preemptive meeting with Mr. Mugabe, after which he declared, "There is no crisis." Then he traveled to the regional conference, where he prevented the group from criticizing Mr. Mugabe or supporting the opposition's demand that the election results be immediately released.
If there is good news in this sordid story -- and consolation for the proponents of an alliance of democracies -- it is that Mr. Mbeki's policy is increasingly unpopular in his own country. South Africa's free press has been scathing in its denunciations of the coddling of Mr. Mugabe, as have opposition party leaders. Even better, the new president of Mr. Mbeki's own African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, has distanced himself from the Zimbabwe posture, as have the party's secretary general and treasurer. Mr. Zuma defeated Mr. Mbeki in a party election in December and is the front-runner to succeed him when he leaves office in a year. So democracy may yet rectify a foreign policy that is shaming South Africa -- and preventing an end to Zimbabwe's misery.