President Clinton was asked at a news conference last week if he hadn't been wasting his time trying to make peace in Northern Ireland. It certainly looks that way, although as a matter of principle we should never say die.

After all, peace has died and been buried half a dozen times in the Middle East, and the president has just had a series of splendid talks with Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, the brave soldier who is making peace his first priority. Maybe he can teach us the essential ingredient for reviving a prostrate dove.

One thing is not essential, Barak made clear. That is U.S. intervention. "I think that the United States can contribute to the process more as facilitator than as a kind of policeman, judge, arbitrator," he said bluntly when he met Clinton in the Rose Garden.

Northern Ireland illustrates painfully the limitations of an imposed settlement. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's passionate interest in resolving Ulster's troubles immediately became clear after his resounding victory in 1997. His first journey was to Belfast. Peace could be brought to Northern Ireland, he reasoned. World attention, a rational approach, economic encouragement and endless patience could uproot the ancient enmities and win the bombers and kneecappers over to another way of life. Clinton eagerly agreed. So did the Irish Republic's benign prime minister, Bertie Ahern, who came to power soon after.

Clinton certainly did his part. Every St. Patrick's Day afterward, Northern Irish politicians of every stripe got a royal reception at the White House, leaders with scarcely perceptible constituencies included. They were serenaded by the U.S. Marine Corps Band, and their differences diluted by Irish whiskey. The toasted each other and sang. The morning after, they went back to Belfast--and strife.

The slow process of negotiating their differences reached a climax in the spring of 1998, when the leaders of both sides, goaded and cajoled by ex-senator George Mitchell, produced the Good Friday agreement, which promised a measure of local government and, in time, a laying down of arms. An all-Ireland referendum in May overwhelmingly endorsed it--71 percent in Ulster. A constituent assembly, made up of Catholics and Protestants, was set up. The Nobel Peace Prize was conferred on David Trimble and John Hume, the leaders of the largest political parties of the opposing factions.

But it all fell apart two weeks ago over decommissioning, the Ulster term for disarmament. At the crucial moment--the naming of a cabinet that was to include members of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA--Trimble's unionists balked. They demanded either a pledge on decommissioning or a symbolic handing over of weapons. The IRA said no. The session of the new Northern Irish assembly was an appalling outpouring of the bigotry and hatred of five centuries, a disgraceful declaration that Northern Ireland's leaders have gone back to ground zero.

Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan wrote a searing elegy for hope: "Little men carrying too heavy a load of history has been Ireland's curse for centuries. Belfast has the mindset of the Balkans."

Monica McWilliams, a valiant woman who has worked for peace in the province, had a scalding description of the politicians: "The dynamic in Northern Ireland is that our so-called 'leaders' are afraid to act on their own. Nobody does business here unless a prime minister or a president of the U.S. makes them."

The fact is that people who look like grown men would rather do stupid things, such as putting on silly hats and orange vests and marching spitefully through Catholic neighborhoods on the anniversaries of old battles. Their opponents don't want to give up the careers they have made out of violence and terrorism. There is a disquieting absence of public protest. It can be risky, apparently.

In the Balkans, the United States and its NATO allies have tried to impose a settlement by the most drastic means available, a 78-day bombing campaign. We have stopped ethnic cleansing, but we seem to be making little progress in finding a political solution that offers some kind of permanent peace. We have informed the Serbs that they must oust their war-criminal leader, Slobodan Milosevic, if they want our help in rebuilding their ravaged cities. There have been protests in the provinces, but only murmurs in Belgrade.

Belgrade has risen up against Milosevic before. In November 1996, people packed the city's streets to protest his cancellation of municipal elections results. After three months of demonstrations, he backed down. Belgrade has yet to rise up this time. "The spark eventually has to come from Belgrade," said Mira Angelic, a Serbian lawyer. Impulses for peace, it seems, must be home-grown.