We won the war in Kosovo, and now must ponder what standards to apply the next time we are called upon for a "humanitarian" intervention. Even before that citizen debate has taken firm root, however, President Clinton has to a point preempted it with some remarkable assertions of his personal readiness to save threatened peoples everywhere.

Yes, everywhere. In his latest, post-Kosovo pronouncements, Clinton has virtually severed the link between interventionist impulse and national interest or cost/benefit constraint. Not for him anymore to set rigorous conditions for humanitarian intervention -- such as definition or proof of the crime or guarantee of popular and international support. He affords himself scant prudential ground for taking it slow. It is enough for him to proclaim a humanitarian crisis -- and they come steadily and in practically every part of the world -- and move in.

In Europe a week ago, the president addressed "the people of the world," declaring: "Whether you live in Africa, or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it."

Presumably that means Clinton is now prepared to bring America's unmatched conventional power to bear in a broad range of circumstances that have not previously prompted American intervention.

Little is beyond our power to "stop," moreover, at a time when the United States can deploy ever more accurate precision-guided weapons from air and sea "platforms" themselves largely safe from retaliation by our chosen adversaries.

Has any other president similarly flaunted a verging-on-unilateral interventionist intent? In Kosovo the United States enjoyed the company of its allies but was plainly the instigator and called the shots. In his interventionist rhetoric since, Clinton has been slow to solicit either the political authority or actual participation of the United Nations, the Western alliance or anyone else.

Clinton, fresh from the rescue of surviving Kosovars, is struck by the notion that in this "bloody century" millions died "because democracies reacted too late to evil and aggression." Among those who tarried, of course, in Bosnia and Rwanda as well as Kosovo, was Bill Clinton, who now mixes expiation with explanation of his new declaratory policy.

I am buoyed by the thought of the United States taking on a broad rescue role. But just about everything you and I have learned about foreign policy in the past half-century, to say nothing of what went before, advises us to proceed carefully and ask where unalloyed enthusiasm may lead.

A prudent president might say to himself: I did well, finally, in Kosovo. I acted, confounding many of the experts. I saved many Kosovars and lost no Americans in combat. But the polls and my own sense of things suggest that the American people are uneasy about humanitarian commitments. Warm as they are to the purpose, Americans are unaccustomed to seeing American foreign policy come unhitched from the arguable but still reassuring criteria of national interest. Nor is the Pentagon at all ready to take on a new and open-ended mission distant from its familiar duties. I might do better not to push my luck or raise expectations prematurely.

On this issue, Clinton has shown sensitivity to racial and ethnic considerations. He is one of the few American politicians willing to wade into these troubled waters. He doesn't just stress his openness to intervene "in Africa" as well as in Europe. He also has repeatedly cited, as an enabling factor in his diplomacy, the multiethnic and multiracial composition of American armed forces.

Clinton was slow to get the message of the vivid media images of terror and death first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo. He hung back from rallying popular and alliance support for a military initiative in both places. Evidently, he believed a studied pace was essential to ensure the requisite political cover. Only now, after the killing, does he insist he will force the pace of intervention next time. I still have the impression that Americans remain in the posture of the reluctant sheriff.

To succeed in saving lives, Clinton must extend his concern beyond eleventh-hour, or thirteenth-hour, military reprieves. He must tackle the less dramatic tasks of working with other nations by intelligence sharing and preventive diplomacy to anticipate violence. In the last analysis, rescues indicate that the deeper purpose of preemption has not been served.