IT IS ONE of the enduring American embarrassments in Africa that the country with which the United States is most closely and lengthily associated, Liberia, has seen such misery and misrule. Known since the 19th century for having been founded by former American slaves, favored anew in the postwar decades for its strategic and political accessibility, Liberia long languished but seemed due for better days in 1980 when a young master sergeant, Samuel K. Doe, threw out the ruling Americo-Liberian elite. By his corruption, brutality and despotism he soon earned mention in the same breath with Idi Amin and Jean Bedel Bokassa. In rigging the 1985 elections he aggravated previously manageable tribal differences and paved the way for the vicious civil war that has been further wasting the country for the past six months. A second charter aircraft of nervous American citizens flew out of Monrovia last night, and U.S. Marines are offshore.

The leader of the insurgent forces, Charles Taylor, professes to be more deeply committed to democracy than President Doe. But Mr. Taylor, who escaped from an American jail, where he was being held on charges of embezzlement from a Liberian government agency, is not yet a proven contender. Representatives of the two are currently talking in neighboring Sierra Leone under the anxious eye of Liberian churchmen.

Both sides are eager somehow to use the weight of the United States to their advantage. The United States is resisting being drawn in. American responsibility for Liberia's misfortunes may be considerable, but the American record in setting its affairs straight is awful. This time the way of wisdom is not to jump in with a major aid package but to wait for hard evidence that Liberia is actually going democratic. The international agencies ought to take the brunt of the foreign development burden. In Eastern Europe and elsewhere in recent years, international election consultants and monitors have proven useful in starting up would-be democracies. Monitors, unfortunately, are no substitute for a democratic tradition, working political structures within the country and civic commitment on the part of the people.