JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Since winning the country's first all-race elections two years ago today, Nelson Mandela's government has won high marks abroad for its deft handling of post-apartheid domestic problems, from integrating the military to defusing militant labor unions.
But its foreign policy has been marked by embarrassments and affronts to friendly Western governments. The latest, most serious flap erupted this week over Pretoria's bizarre embrace of Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi, whom Washington considers a prime sponsor of international terrorism.
At issue was an official visit to Tripoli by South African Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo. In a joint statement with Kadafi, Nzo called for "lifting of the unjust sanctions" imposed on Libya by the U.N. Security Council in November 1993 over the bombing of a jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The sanctions followed Kadafi's vehement refusal to surrender suspects accused of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988. The explosion killed 270 people, including 189 Americans.
Nzo also appeared to support Kadafi's denials that the renegade regime is building a secret chemical weapons facility in Tarhunah, outside Tripoli. The Clinton administration has said the evidence is indisputable and has publicly discussed the possibility of launching an attack to destroy it.
London has already sent Pretoria a protest letter about Nzo's statement. The U.S. Embassy expects to deliver its statement this week. The French government, which has accused Libya of bombing a UTA flight over Chad in October 1989, also plans to send a statement.
South Africa's support for Kadafi also has rung alarm bells in the U.S. Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans have signed a letter professing "great concern." U.S. officials here fear the dispute may lead to calls for cuts in aid to South Africa and frighten potential investors.
"We're pretty upset about it," said a Western diplomat in Pretoria. "Everybody is saying, 'What the hell is going on?' And we don't have a satisfactory answer."
But the explanation is simple. Mandela insists on supporting friends, even if it infuriates the West. In February, for example, he angrily defended his invitations to Kadafi and Cuban leader Fidel Castro to visit South Africa, saying they had actively supported the struggle against apartheid when most Western governments did not.
"I'm not going to take advice as to who my friends should be," Mandela said. "The enemies of the West are not my enemies, and I'm not prepared to be dictated to at all by anybody."
Chris Landsberg, an analyst at the independent Center for Policy Studies here, blamed that personalized approach for what he called South Africa's "absolutely astonishing failures" in foreign policy.
"We have become so obsessed with the notion of Washington and London not dictating our foreign policy that we have gone to the extreme of defying them and endorsing these other countries' internal policies," he said Thursday.
"What we're seeing is a contradiction. Mandela is sacrificing principles of human rights and morality to support his friends."
Washington considers the dispute over Libya more damaging than its concerns over Pretoria's warm relations with Cuba and Iran. The administration was irked, for example, when Pretoria refused to condemn Cuba for the March 2 downing of two civilian planes piloted by Cuban Americans. Last year, Pretoria publicly defied the U.S. oil embargo on Tehran.
But other countries are also concerned. Algeria's government complained last month when Mandela met a reputed terrorist accused of car bombings in Algiers. Mandela similarly annoyed Israel and several Arab nations when he said he was willing to meet a representative of Hamas, the radical Middle Eastern Islamic group. The meeting never took place.
Mandela also has been heavily criticized at home for his seesawing policy on the military junta in Nigeria and its dismal human rights record.