It is in Africa, rather than in the Balkans or the Persian Gulf, that President Clinton and his advisers are gaining their formative experience in the use of force abroad. The first paragraphs of a Clinton Doctrine are being written in Somalia, an unusual and probably inappropriate testing ground for American leadership.

Who ultimately rules Somalia is not a major U.S. concern. But the way President Clinton and his aides manage the small war they have unleashed there against the forces of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed will shape future U.S. decisions on force. What the president and his national security team learn about how they work together will ultimately be more important than what they learn about Somalia.

The gap between Somalia's low ranking in American strategic interests and the importance it is taking on in policy-making in Washington is a measure of the problems Africa poses as a testing ground.

Somalia poses no conceivable security threat to the United States. The use of force can be expanded or abandoned with relative ease, according to criteria Clinton chooses. The American strike force that provides the United Nations with its most important muscle operates outside the U.N. command. It can be pulled out at any time without significant political or military leaders accusing the president of betraying U.S. interests.

In Somalia, the United States has been applying force without diplomacy. This is the flip side of the coin of Bosnia, where diplomacy without force is being used.

President Bush dispatched 28,000 American troops to Somalia in December to feed starving children and to give the military a public opinion boost at budget time. About 5,000 soldiers have stayed on to work with the U.N. command, in part to gain experience in the new world of international peace-keeping beyond the Cold War.

Those modest, worthwhile U.S. achievements are now at risk as U.S. troops are being drawn deeper into Somalia's war of the warlords. Mission creep -- the temptation commanders feel to chase success and perhaps glory around the next corner by expanding their mandate and rolling over anyone in their way -- threatens to take hold in Mogadishu.

The mission in Somalia is no longer to protect relief agencies as they distribute food. U.S. officials now talk to reporters about Somalia as a test case for the rest of Africa, a place to use U.S. firepower to establish U.N. credibility and effectiveness against two-bit rogues like Aideed, whose forces have butchered U.N. peacekeepers. Aideed's guerrillas now stand in the way of a larger success for U.S. firepower.

But Somalia is a special and, in many ways, a marginal case that should not be transformed into a central example of anything. The attempted destruction of Aideed and his central command by U.S. assault helicopters last week conjures up the image of Zeus hurling thunderbolts at ants.

The Clinton administration seems drawn to thunderbolt diplomacy, the late 20th century equivalent of the use of gunboats by imperial powers to intimidate unruly natives into behaving better. Technology has replaced the gunboat with cruise missiles and assault helicopters.

Clinton had settled on air strikes as the force of choice in Bosnia before he backed away from any direct military intervention there. He dispatched cruise missiles to teach Iraq a lesson after concluding Baghdad had mounted a plot to kill Bush. And in Somalia good intentions backed up by tactical air strikes form a distinctive American approach to civil war and chaos in that shattered African land.

This president favors air power as a pedagogical tool. Two weeks ago I asked him what linked his military acts in Somalia and Iraq. He responded by emphasizing how different the objectives were in each case. He did not pick up my invitation to talk generally about his ideas on the use of force abroad.

The Somalia raids were intended to destroy the military capacity of Aideed to act against the United Nations, while Iraq's plot on Bush represented "a clear one-on-one, United States against Iraq" matchup, Clinton said.

His remarks left no doubt that he was intently involved in the effort to run Aideed to ground and would not be satisfied until the Somali clan leader was jailed. Decision-making on air strikes targeting Aideed's lieutenants and the warlord himself has been entirely in American hands.

American firepower can prove that Aideed, too, is mortal. But erasing Aideed by a thunderbolt from the blue will not solve Somalia's vast problems, much less start the redemption of all of Africa. America went into Somalia with modest goals and made a good start. Resisting mission creep by keeping the U.S. goals modest should be the number one American priority in Somalia now.