The Clinton administration and its European allies showed unity under pressure in defeating Serb forces in Kosovo. But with bombs no longer falling, they are returning to the political habit of deflecting future blame, onto adversaries where possible, onto friends where necessary.

Confronted with the threatening problems of postwar Kosovo, NATO governments are on the prowl for others to tag if things go wrong. Team Clinton -- arguably the most deft U.S. administration ever in preemptive ducking -- has targeted its first salvos on two tried-and-trues in political demonology: the United Nations and France.

Blame-gaming at this stage could be hazardous as well as unseemly. It dims the deserved luster of President Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Jacques Chirac and the others who led and supported the air war in Kosovo. It obscures a relatively positive balance sheet that has emerged since NATO troops moved into Kosovo in early June.

The death toll and extent of destruction in Kosovo are less than feared. Kosovo politicians have emphasized their desire for a quick return to normality through reconstruction. They have played down demands for immediate independence and promise to cooperate with NATO and the United Nations.

These are building blocks for a serious international effort to pacify and democratize the Serbian province turned international protectorate. It is up to the European Union, the United Nations and the United States to make reconstruction work. They will need to establish and maintain a unity of purpose and a sharing of responsibility parallel to that achieved by NATO in waging war.

Instead, the Pentagon and State Department have taken turns recently in minimizing future political exposure, rather than engaging in innovative thinking about the international community's joint duties in the Balkans and the new form of warfare the United States has helped create.

In congressional testimony last week, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointedly criticized the United Nations for being "slow off the mark" in relieving them of law-and-order responsibilities in Kosovo. Their desire to hand off as much police and civil responsibility in Kosovo as quickly as possible was palpable.

Also understandable. Military units are not traditionally trained to apply finesse as well as firepower in threatening situations, as good police units are. And the United Nations is no model of efficiency or clarity of purpose, even in circumstances less trying than Kosovo.

But Cohen and Shelton were also deflecting future blame for Kosovo. They could have used their appearance instead to outline how the United States will adapt to a strong supporting role in the next phase of this "humanitarian" war. They could have addressed the changes needed in training and staffing to prepare U.S. troops for the roles they are increasingly called upon to play.

The U.S. military now finds itself deeply involved in the messy aftermaths of limited wars that neither its commanders nor its political leaders are willing to fight to the finish. Having left wounded dictatorships to survive in Iraq and Serbia, the Pentagon and the White House cannot just walk away to let the United Nations pick up the pieces of U.S. bombing.

Washington and its allies bombed Serbia without U.N. Security Council authorization, which would have been blocked by China and Russia. They were right to do so. But NATO's leaders need to prove they did not bypass the United Nations and then turn back to it for a cease-fire and reconstruction resolution simply to have a scapegoat for the problems of peace.

Allied scratchiness is already back. French officials are still seething over what they see as unjustified criticism by David J. Scheffer, the State Department's special envoy on war crimes. Scheffer sought to deflect questions about U.S. responsibility for the continuing freedom of indicted Bosnian war criminal Radovan Karadzic by blaming the French for not arresting him.

Long-stalled plans to arrest Karadzic were drawn up two years ago by five nations taking part in the international force in Bosnia, including France and the United States. The arrest is a joint responsibility, not solely a French one. American commanders have been no more eager to pursue his arrest than have other nations' officers, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

President Clinton and Secretary Cohen were convincing in portraying their commitment to Kosovo as a noble one rooted in the best of humanitarian instincts. They must now guard against a return to politics as usual, which would tarnish their considerable accomplishment and undermine their goal of a secure Kosovo.