THE SOUTH AFRICAN government, conducting its outrageous raids in three neighboring countries, naturally was quick to cite the American raid in Libya as political cover. The White House was ready to make essential distinctions: ''The Libyans and Col. Qaddafi have been the No. 1 exporter of terrorism on a worldwide basis,'' spokesman Larry Speakes said, ''and we've produced proof of that.'' The Pretoria regime did not even attempt to establish proof that its targets in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, which deny allowing African National Congress military operations, had any connection to terrorism at home. All attacks conducted in the name of fighting terrorism are not equal; some are justified and some are not.

A calculus of defiance and intimidation is evident in South Africa's blows at neighbors with which it had supposedly been trying to come to peaceful terms on issues of cross-border violence. It will confirm the views of those who believe armed struggle and pressure are the only way to dismantle apartheid. At the same time, Prime Minister P. W. Botha's whole strategy is to combine partial and crabbed reform with constant muscle flexing meant to reassure worried whites and neutralize critics to his right. Monday's raids came as an ''eminent persons group'' representing the British Commonwealth was trying to fit into place a plan for a broad negotiation between the Botha government and a freed Nelson Mandela of, yes, the ANC. Both an intent to block such an opening and an intent to make political room for it can be read into the raids.

In Washington, Democrats are about to introduce legislation to tighten economic sanctions against South Africa. The latest attacks, with their potent aura of bullying, will feed into this debate. The administration fought off legislated sanctions last year only by promulgating (milder) sanctions of its own. It opposes new legislation, but it will be under the gun to prove that it is not being excessively cozy with the Pretoria regime for strategic reasons. Pretoria's raids now require that it take clear and unambiguous action to show its displeasure, to distance itself from what happened on Monday.