When Nelson Mandela not only defended his friendship with Gad-hafi, Castro and the mullahs of Iran, but then instructed the president of the United States on loyalty to friends and the need to reach out to enemies, Bill Clinton - who lacks the moral authority to criticize anyone, let alone a Mandela - stood silent and acquiescing. Yet just three days earlier in Uganda, Clinton had chastised his own country for having supported African dictators who were friendly to us during the Cold War.

What gives? I have no problem with Mandela coddling the dictators who stood by him in his battle against apartheid. But why do we Americans have to beg forgiveness of Africa for coddling the dictators who helped us in our battle against the Soviet Union?A president with an ounce of political courage and a scintilla of belief in his own country's Cold War cause would have pointed out that America's moral compromises during the Cold War were at least as justified as Mandela's during his war.

First, communism caused far more suffering and posed a far greater danger to humanity than apartheid. For all its cruelties and inhumanity, apartheid was not in the business of mass murder. Communism was - from the tens of millions who died at the hands of Stalin to the killing fields of Pol Pot.

Second, the evil of apartheid, isolated in but one country out of 185, was not for export. Soviet communism was - enslaving and murdering worldwide from North Korea to Hungary to Ethiopia.

Third, the corrupt leaders we enlisted in the Cold War, for all of their kleptomania and cruelty, can hardly match the bloodthirsty reach of the bad guys Mandela now defends. Mobutu did not go in for international terrorism, like Mandela's friends in Libya and Iran. No Pan Am 103s to his credit.

In his mea culpa for having used African countries as pawns in the "competition with the Soviet Union," Clinton seems momentarily to have forgotten his - and his party's - recent retroactive conversion to anti-communism. You know: As soon as the Cold War was over and won, Democrats like Clinton began waxing nostalgic about how easy and obvious moral choices were in the good-versus-evil Cold War world, how opposing communism came naturally to everyone.

This nostalgia is based on a fiction. In reality, post-Vietnam liberalism reviled "Cold Warriors" and opposed their nearly every step to topple the Soviet empire. Liberals witheringly attacked aid to the Contras in Nicaragua and to the anti-communist government in El Salvador. They opposed the Reagan defense buildup that spent the Soviets into ruin. They ridiculed Reagan's Evil Empire rhetoric.

Now, however, they pretend they were on board with the Cold Warriors all the time. But in his African apology, Clinton slipped. He reverted to the old notion of the Cold War as just "competition with the Soviet Union." He thus inadvertently trod on the liberals' new line that the Cold War was not mere competition but high purpose, not a geopolitical game but a moral imperative. He betrayed the truth: post-Vietnam liberalism's ambivalence all along about the Cold War and anti-communism.

Express contrition for trying to geopolitically defeat Soviet expansion as it advanced on every continent? Why should we? We were right to oppose the Soviets. And we, like Mandela, took our allies as we found them.

Indeed, the proof of our good intentions is the fact that we dropped these miscreants after the Cold War ended. We dropped Mobutu. We cut off Jonas Savimbi in Angola. We no longer play Ethiopia against Somalia and Somalia against Ethiopia.

With the Soviet Union vanquished, we said goodbye to all that. So what does Clinton do now? Apologize for our "sin of neglect" of Africa.

We can't win for losing. We cut off the old tainted ties, and now the charge is neglect. In fact, after the Cold War, American involvement changed from geopolitical maneuver to humanitarian rescue. In Liberia, and fatally in Somalia.

The United States spent much treasure and blood in a completely selfless (and equally vain) attempt to rescue Somalia from itself. What other country did half as much? True, we should have tried again in Rwanda, but one can understand the American reluctance to wade into the fire again. Nonetheless, is there a Great Power in history that has taken more risk and spent more resources in humanitarian interventions all over the world from Bosnia to Somalia to Haiti?

And yet, for this president that is still not enough. He crisscrosses an entire continent, dripping contrition for failing to achieve moral purity of a kind not even Nelson Mandela can boast. Oh, the burdens of rectitude.