The Clinton administration should be commended for not hastily sending U.S. peacekeepers to stop the violence in East Timor. Perhaps our continued inability to foster a self-sustaining peace in Kosovo and Bosnia finally has caused the administration to understand the inherent limits that confront a superpower in small regional crises. As the tragic conflict in East Timor continues, the president has the chance to more clearly define America's unique role as the world's lone superpower.

We've learned in the Balkans that the United States can bomb a much smaller country into temporary submission. Creating the conditions for a sustained peace, however, is a different matter. The truth is that a superpower is more credible and effective when it maintains a measured distance from all regional conflicts -- not possible when our well-trained military troops are used as global "care givers."

The recent flare-up between Beijing and Taiwan reminded us that there remain areas in the world where only the United States can provide stability. The same is true on the all-too-tense Korean peninsula. The United States is the only power able to keep such potential hot spots cool, but only rarely do circumstances require the commitment of U.S. ground troops.

Make no mistake: U.S. strategic interests are potentially at stake in East Timor. Indonesia's position along the Molucca Strait, a vital global waterway, imbues that country with an importance greater than the disturbing events we see inside Indonesia's borders. But no number of American peacekeepers can halt a breakup of the central government in Jakarta or help it to maintain control over the thousands of islands in the Indonesian archipelago. At the same time, only one country on earth -- the United States -- has the will and the military power to keep the strait open should that ever be required.

Given Indonesian President B. J. Habibie's apparent request for an international force, Australia appears ready to lead whatever peacekeeping effort may be needed in East Timor. Australia is a strong and able regional military power and has been our faithful ally in Asia for many years. President Clinton rightly offered in New Zealand to provide "some of the things only we can provide," including logistical support, intelligence and communications.

Such strategic wisdom, however, has been absent in recent years. We have seen the United States stumble into a series of regional crises -- displacing local powers that share our objectives and are otherwise able to act on their own. This has led to strategic missteps -- a hallmark of Clinton administration foreign policy. In Kosovo, our direct involvement in a regional matter damaged our strategic relationships with Russia and China. It is not yet clear that our effort in the Balkans was successful, given the continuing turmoil in that historically troubled region. In fact, peace has yet to take root even in Bosnia, a place patrolled by our combat troops since 1995.

There is also a practical limitation on involvement in small and regional conflicts. Our stretched military forces are becoming inadequate for the critical tasks assigned them. In fact, our involvement in the Kosovo conflict would make it more difficult to respond to the current crisis in Indonesia should that crisis devolve into something far more serious. The Balkan bombing campaign forced us to divert to the Mediterranean the Navy's only aircraft carrier permanently assigned to the Pacific.

Such slap-dash force deployments have created a tempo of operations that degrades our military readiness as qualified personnel leave the services in droves. It's no surprise that last year only one in 10 eligible carrier naval aviators accepted incentive bonuses to remain in service.

To reverse the readiness shortfall, Congress has provided military pay raises and routinely increased the president's annual defense budget requests. At the same time, the FY '00 defense bill contains a provision I authored that calls for the administration to examine whether we can reduce our global commitments in those regions where the mission clearly has ended or requires fewer troops than are deployed. This is a sensible course to take if we are to maintain our ability to act in those cases that demand a response from the world's only superpower.

There may be no better example than Indonesia of the differences between what we can offer as a superpower and what we should offer in a supporting role for our regional allies. If the president can make this distinction at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, he will shine a bright light on the path of U.S. foreign policy as we lead the world into the next century. If not, our path will be unclear and the price at the end will be high.

The writer is a Republican senator from Texas and a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee.