PRESIDENT CLINTON's foreign policy has suffered some disappointments in big places: Russia comes to mind. But it also has suffered in small places, which is in a way still more humiliating. The roster of small but excruciating setbacks is headed by Haiti.

In 1994, 20,000 American troops landed on this dirt-poor patch of the Caribbean, promising to restore democracy. During the ensuing five years, troops remained there at an annual cost of $20 million to American taxpayers, and Haiti became the top Latin American recipient of U.S. development aid. Yet it now seems that the world's only superpower has had remarkably little impact on this micropower of 7 million people. With an air of resignation, the administration recently let it be known that the U.S. garrison in Haiti would be closed by the end of the year.

There is no easy explanation for this debacle. Critics of the administration's pro-democracy diplomacy sometimes have accused it of focusing too much on elections and not enough on the civic institutions that underpin democracy. This is not the case in Haiti. America, along with other foreign donors, has trained a new police force, but vigilantes still reign. America has trained lawyers and judges, but there are still few fair trials. America has strained to reduce corruption by reforming the civil service. But corruption remains fabulous, and much of it is said to be run by the man whom American troops returned to the presidency, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

America also did try to promote elections, and in 1995 a successor to Mr. Aristide was voted into office, marking Haiti's first democratic transition from one president to the next. But even in the electoral sphere the record is depressing. Observers reported that cheating in 1995 was more prevalent than in 1990, before the American invasion. Turn out was down, and it did not pick up for the 1997 parliamentary vote. Another parliamentary election, due this November, may not be held. Formally, power resides with President Rene Preval, the winner of the 1995 election. But Mr. Preval is thought to do Mr. Aristide's bidding, and his democratic credentials were undermined when he dissolved parliament in January and started to rule by decree.

Does Haiti teach a lesson? Some will argue that America should give up on pro-democracy intervention. The Pentagon and its congressional sympathizers declare that the military should not be called upon to do what they regard as "social work," which saps preparedness for proper wars. Given the scant returns on the investment in Haiti, this view cannot be dismissed. And yet America should not turn its back on this and other trouble spots. If the humanitarian intervention is undermining military preparedness, that is an argument for giving the Pentagon more resources, not for pulling the plug on post-Cold War missions of this kind.

Building democracy in a place such as Haiti is a long-term project. It should not be a surprise that, after five years of U.S. effort, Haiti has advanced only modestly. Given time, more advance is possible, but only if basic physical security for democrats can be ensured. In June the International Republican Institute, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to promote democracy, pulled out of Haiti after 10 years of effort there. Now the U.S. troop withdrawal raises the threat of more such departures. In the absence of military social workers, Haiti may backslide, until a new disaster triggers a fresh wave of boat people headed for Florida -- and worse.