In the days following the end of the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, President Clinton flew to the war zone and proclaimed, in the heady spirit of the moment, that the allied victory had set a new standard for armed humanitarian interventions.

"Never forget," the president told NATO troops in Macedonia, that "if we can do this here . . . we can then say to the people of the world, 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." Yet only 11 weeks later, as a new crisis erupted over a possible intervention in East Timor, the president's senior advisers were all but disowning the president's words.

"I don't think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said we ought to intervene wherever there's a humanitarian problem," national security adviser Sandy Berger told reporters at a news conference on Sept. 8. And Secretary of Defense William Cohen insisted, like American leaders before him, that the United States cannot be the world's policeman.

The crisis in Indonesia has become a sobering reminder of the chasm between thought and deed, between lofty principles and nuanced realities. If a Clinton humanitarian doctrine was born in Kosovo, it seems to be a creature of its times and of its namesake: case-by-case, unhobbled by consistency, strictly dependent on circumstances.

"It's almost always dangerous to articulate a general doctrine, particularly when vital interests aren't at stake," said Richard Haass, a national security official in the Bush administration who is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "You'll want to discriminate."

What the Clinton administration ended up supporting, after Indonesia acceded to an international force in East Timor, is not the military engagement and superpower leadership it demonstrated in Kosovo. It is a material and political helping hand--a couple of hundred troops, mostly pilots to transport soldiers from donor nations and assist with logistics, communications and intelligence. In its personnel contributions, the United States ranks behind Australia, Portugal, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, Canada, France and South Korea--all of which together will muster a force of fewer than 10,000 troops.

Does that number, and the U.S. piece of it, reflect the severity of the crisis it is meant to stifle?

Ethnic terror and mass displacement are among the Balkans-sized horrors going on in the Indonesian territory. In the past 25 years, an estimated 200,000 people have been killed in East Timor--a quarter of the population. The killing in the former Yugoslavia was on an equivalent scale, but over a shorter period of time; in Rwanda, the bloodletting was two to four times worse, depending on estimates, over a matter of just a few months.

But policy, let alone doctrine, cannot be built on a hierarchy of outrage. Under the emerging standards for intervention, the scale of the inhumanity does not appear to be the decisive factor. Just as important are the legitimacy of the political claims of the suffering population, the means that can be brought to bear to end the suffering--"if it is in our power to stop it," as the president himself cautioned--and the consequences of intervention or inaction to political and economic order in the broader region.

"Each of these situations is different," said Berger at the same news conference. "In Kosovo you had a situation in the middle of Europe, on the doorstep of NATO, which clearly posed not only a compelling humanitarian imperative, but also had strong security and strategic consequences. I think the situation in Indonesia is a serious one and one that we cannot ignore. But there's not one prescription that fits. Because we bombed in Kosovo doesn't mean we should bomb Dili [the East Timorese capital]."

Bombing strategy aside, the East Timorese have a stronger claim to outright independence than the Kosovo Albanians, who have always lived under Serb domination. A former Portuguese colony, East Timor was annexed forcibly by Indonesia in 1976, and the annexation has never been recognized by the U.N. (Australia, notably, has recognized Indonesian legitimacy.) The killing, atrocities and displacement in East Timor lack something else that underlay all of the international decision making on Kosovo: the immediate historical antecedent of four years of bitter war in Croatia and Bosnia. The Yugoslav government of President Slobodan Milosevic has been a pariah in Europe for much of the 1990s, while Indonesia--the fourth-largest country in the world, and the largest Muslim one--has been a staunchly anticommunist U.S. ally in Southeast Asia for decades.

The U.S. national interest in East Timor's independence is not huge. But the Clinton administration, like its predecessors and successors, has an interest in preserving the territorial integrity of Indonesia, which could come under threat if similar independence movements break out elsewhere in the vast archipelago. In this instance there is a regional player, Australia, whose military capabilities and political will to lead the intervention force appear to match its own key interests in peace and security in neighboring Indonesia.

Such tests of U.S. consistency and resolve are bound to recur. Only a few days before the crisis in East Timor dissolved in panic and bloodshed, the Clinton administration was drawn into questions about its commitment to protecting civilians victimized by war in Congo (formerly Zaire). An Aug. 31 interim peace settlement among the various warring parties there raised the prospect of a U.N. force to monitor theaccord.

But the United States carefully remained noncommittal. Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, recently said it would be "premature to speculate" about U.S. participation in a 25,000-member Congo force without final U.N. Security Council approval.

"A good doctrine," said Haass, "ought to leave very little doubt in anyone's mind about our intentions. It shouldn't promise more than we're prepared to deliver." The Clinton doctrine, as amended by East Timor, has qualified its promises accordingly.

Charles Trueheart reports from Paris for The Washington Post.