It’s the sort of news that puts Michael Gerson in the mood to (compassionately) attack somebody. Today’s column opens:

‘Things on the ground,’ e-mailed a friend from groaning Zimbabwe, ‘are absolutely shocking—systematic violence, abductions, brutal murders. Hundreds of activists hospitalized, indeed starting to go possibly into the thousands.’ The military, he says, is ‘going village by village with lists of MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] activists, identifying them and then either abducting them or beating them to a pulp…’

It’s a desperate scene to be sure, but he isn’t going after groaning Zimbabwe. He’s gunning for neighboring South Africa for having the gall to tell the U.S. not to interfere in its region. “’[President Thabo Mbeki] said it was not our business,’ recalls one American official, and ‘to butt out, that Africa belongs to him.’” Imagine!

This isn’t the first infraction. Gerson tallies a long list of symbolic trespasses: blocking human-rights discussions in the UN, voting against a resolution demanding that the Burmese junta stop ethnic cleaning and another denouncing rape in Darfur, and “demand[ing] watered down language” in the resolution condemning Iranian nuclear proliferation. At the root of South Africa’s sins against bureaucracy, he sees a predisposition to “quiet diplomacy with dictators instead of confrontation.” We can’t have that.

Thus a new designation—“rogue democracy”—and another nifty axis: “Along with China and Russia, South Africa makes the United Nations impotent. Along with Saudi Arabia and Sudan, it undermines the global human rights movements.” Try that on for size. Democracy isn’t enough anymore; any nation that doesn’t concede American global hegemony and adopt universal values as we define them is on notice. And we all know how that story turns out. We don’t do “quiet diplomacy with dictators.”

But why should South Africa stand in as our surrogate bully? Much as we may dislike Mbeki’s deference to Mugabe, it’s scarcely illogical. And “apparent indifference to all rights but their own” is a reasonable posture for an emerging nation. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for a more established one that seems to have trouble defining its boundaries.