At 8 a.m. last Sunday, most of President Clinton's key national security advisers were on a telephone conference call working out a defense of the administration's ill-fated policy in Somalia. To explain future policy, they agreed on one clear message: As far as the U.S. action was concerned, Somalia was all over but the leaving.

But by the time the television appearances by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, United Nations Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright and Defense Secretary Les Aspin were over later that day, the message had turned to fog. Pressed to dip beneath the surface of an American pledge of military withdrawal, none could say clearly whether the United States was still pursuing Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed or had called off the chase, was working with the United Nations or against it, was pursuing the goal of nation-building or dropping it.

"Somewhere between the morning's good intentions and the result, something went wrong," said a senior U.S. official.

Just how wrong Somalia went has come into painful, sharp focus in the White House, in Congress and across the country since the Oct. 3 Mogadishu disaster that took 18 American lives. Together with ongoing crises in Bosnia and now in Haiti, Somalia has exposed flaws in the way foreign policy has been made and executed, raising public, congressional and international doubts about the president's foreign policy ability and the strength of his national security team.

In much the same way as the March defeat of the Clinton economic stimulus package forced the president into a reexamination of his domestic goals, his policies to achieve them, and even the public presentation of his presidency in that area, the debacle in Somalia is forcing a reexamination by Clinton and his aides of how his foreign policy is formulated, monitored and explained to the nation.

Since late September, a series of opinion polls have shown sharply declining public approval and confidence in Clinton's foreign policy performance.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, Clinton pointed to what he and many others consider his policy's successes: the backing of Boris Yeltsin through crises in Russia and the current calm there; the aggressive promotion of American economic interests abroad; the efforts to control nuclear proliferation; and his personal efforts on behalf of trade accords such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But on Somalia, on Bosnia, and on the broader issue of America's role in conflicts around the world where no readily discernible American interest is at stake, Clinton acknowledged misjudgments and cited lessons learned. Failing to enlist the nation more fully in "the great national debate" over America's role in the post-Cold War world, he said, may have been one. Allowing U.S. soldiers to serve under U.N. command without adequate attention to their security was another. Allowing the diplomatic effort in Somalia to lag and the military effort to predominate was the third, and major error cited.

"I even made a crack the other day . . . 'Gosh, I miss the Cold War,' " Clinton said of the nostalgia shared by policymakers for the anti-Soviet framework within which most of the West operated for four decades. Finding a workable framework for this new era and sorting out America's role, he added, "could take years."

Christopher, in a separate interview, added to the lessons learned. It was "probably an error" not to have a high-level review of U.S. policy after Aideed's militia began killing U.N. peace keepers, he said, explaining that the United Nations "is not a bureaucracy . . . you can turn things over to and depend upon."

But while agreeing that Clinton faces a more difficult world than most recent presidents, critics and many officials in his own administration, in Congress and in academia said in interviews last week that the president himself has made his job harder.

Clinton stands accused by many outsiders of leaving too much of the policy-making to a national security team that has yet to show significant strength, of failing to use his premier platform to engage the public and Congress fully in what America was doing in Somalia and elsewhere, and of failing to think through the implications at home and abroad of making public promises he cannot or will not keep.

Some Democrats charge that he has opened the door to harsh attacks on his competence by Republicans with presidential ambitions of their own, such as former defense secretary Richard B. Cheney, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar and former secretary of state James A. Baker III.

Abroad, some of the reviews are harsh. The British magazine The Economist, in a piece entitled "Foggy Bottom Fumbling," this week called on Clinton to overhaul his team. "Faced with treat-or-beat confusion in Somalia, a dizzying set of U-turns on Bosnia, foot-shuffling over North Korea's nuclear plans and a mission to restore democracy in Haiti that is blocked before it reaches dock, America's allies are entitled to feel anxious," it huffed. "If America cannot get a grip on the world's impending disasters, nobody can."

Christopher yesterday dismissed such European criticism as "blame America" rhetoric tied to America's "not having resolved the problem that Europe failed to resolve itself": Bosnia. He suggested too much of Washington too long has had a "Eurocentric attitude" and should remember that "Western Europe is no longer the dominant area of the world . . . . There is a lot of criticism coming from Western Europe but I don't see or hear that coming from Asia."

In essence, Clinton was described last week as having the opposite priorities of President George Bush, who was charged with spending too much of his time and passion -- and that of his most competent aides -- on foreign policy. "My premise was that the American people were hungry for a president who showed that he knew that something had to be done here to address our problems at home that had been long neglected," Clinton said of his concentration on domestic issues. While insisting he had not ignored foreign policy, Clinton said he had had a "conscious focus" on those domestic problems he pledged in his campaign to address.

That focus, senior officials acknowledge, allowed issues like Somalia and Bosnia to be mishandled, and the broader issue of building domestic support for a new American foreign leadership role to go begging.

"A couple of the major problems, {Clinton} inherited," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. "But he's been in there long enough that he should have made some real stamp on foreign policy. I don't think that they have thought out a post-Cold War foreign policy."

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) noted in a speech last week what many see as Clinton's most significant failing. In describing how little Americans think or care about foreign policy until there is a crisis, Hamilton said a president "must provide leadership . . . . The president must persuade the American people to undertake missions and responsibilities they are reluctant to accept" and must bring the nation into the debate over "questions of collective security and America's role in the world."

Clinton has given only one major address and few speeches -- beyond moments of crisis -- devoted to explaining and promoting U.S. foreign policy. State Department officials and Western diplomats complain of the difficulty of arranging meetings between the president and foreign leaders. Administration officials involved in foreign affairs complain of the struggle to get White House attention for their issues and concerns.

Clinton himself now says, "Part of my job is to have a great national dialogue, and perhaps I should have started it more quickly and done it more intensely." Christopher endorses that view: "The president's leadership in foreign policy is absolutely critical . . . . I want to emphasize the importance of him doing more and not less because I think it will make him a stronger president."

Christopher says it is "a bum rap" that Clinton is insufficiently engaged in foreign policy or that White House resistance keeps necessary foreign policy matters off Clinton's plate. But others believe that is not the case. "We've got a White House scheduling office that thinks prime ministers are senior church officials," one official said. "Some of us think they'd like a foreign policy without foreigners."

The Clinton team has received less than rave reviews for its efforts in speeches over the past month to delineate a foreign policy framework whose goal is the "enlargement" of democracy around the world, as national security adviser Anthony Lake put it. A typical reaction to the enlargement theme was that of Stanley Hoffman, a Harvard University foreign policy specialist. "There is an extraordinary contradiction between enlarging democracy and defending human rights around the world, and what is actually being done. It is a minimalist policy with maximalist, very lofty language."

Yale University political scientist Gaddis Smith was more blunt on the subject of "enlargement." "Banality on stilts," he sniffed. But he agreed with Clinton that a workable framework for post-Cold War policy may be many years in coming.

Even Christopher, ever the practical lawyer, said he is dubious about efforts to state "overarching" themes. He said he did not enunciate the policy framework himself because he prefers to deal with concrete problems and their solutions.

Baker, who until this week had been circumspect in his assessment of the administration that replaced the one in which he served, spoke of the vital foreign policy leadership role he said a president, and no one else, must play. Both Somalia and Haiti, he said, demonstrate the dangers and complexities of the world and why "it is a fantasy to believe that foreign policy can be relegated to a backburner or that presidential responsibility for it can delegated."

Somalia, according to senior officials involved in the policymaking, received classic back-burner treatment that allowed it to escape the rigorous attention it deserved. One senior official said policymakers were "asleep at that switch" because they had been so engaged with more critical switches: Bosnia and Russia.

Having endorsed the humanitarian mission launched by Bush, Clinton acknowledged he did not focus on Somalia until after Aideed's forces were accused of killing 24 Pakistani U.N. peace keepers on June 5. Then, he said Friday, he "couldn't just sit there," but had to support U.N. resolutions demanding the culprits be brought to justice.

Most of Clinton's top aides said neither they nor the president then comprehended that the broader U.N. role they had approved would dominate the U.N., and thus the U.S., effort in Somalia. When the 18 Americans died Oct. 3 during a "search and seizure" raid by U.S. forces on Aideed lieutenants -- just as Clinton was heavily promoting diplomatic efforts to aid political reconciliation in Somalia -- the president said he had not known the orders to grab Aideed and punish him were still in force.

When he asked aides how that lapse could have happened, Clinton said Friday, he was satisfied with the answers. But the incident, he said, persuaded him that no involvement like Somalia would occur again.

"The error was the error in not seeing it got out of balance. You know, this is my fault and the fault of the rest of us," Christopher said.

Clinton's failure to articulate and sell a coherent foreign policy has attracted wide criticism on Capitol Hill. But nowhere has the administration's inattentiveness to congressional concerns become more painfully obvious than in the office of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the 76-year-old Appropriations Committee chairman who controls funding for all foreign operations.

Byrd's fundamental misgivings about U.S. military involvement overseas are well known in Washington. But he has worked hard since February to bring them to the attention of senior administration officials, writing three letters to Clinton and delivering four speeches on the Senate floor.

Byrd's consistent message has been that Congress lacked the administration's enthusiasm for an expanded -- and expensive -- U.S. role in U.N. peace-keeping operations in Bosnia and Somalia. "I think there needs to be a serious reality check in certain quarters," he said on July 15, just as officials were putting the finishing touches on a presidential directive that spelled out the new U.S. policy of support for "multilateralism."

Clinton sent two letters to Byrd, including one in which he promised to "work closely with Congress . . . to build a common vision of the appropriate nature of U.S. support for U.N. peace keeping." But between February and mid-October, no senior administration official met with Byrd in person, he said in an interview.

Albright telephoned once, seeking Byrd's support for U.N.-related funding, but never followed up on her suggestion that the two meet for a detailed conversation. Byrd said in an interview that "their basic problem has been that they forgot the high school civics lesson that there are three branches of government and that Congress controls the purse strings."

The administration was faced with a whirlwind last week with Senate approval of a modified Byrd amendment narrowing the mission for U.S. forces in Somalia and cutting off funding after March 31. It was one of the few such direct congressional interventions in foreign policy since the Vietnam War, and this from a Democratic Congress asked to support a Democratic president in his first foreign policy crisis.

Asked why Byrd's concerns were not treated more seriously, Christopher said that although it "doesn't really excuse it," Byrd is not "on our {foreign affairs} committees." He also noted that Byrd himself has boasted of never voting for a single foreign aid bill.

Leahy, in an interview, warned that Clinton now faces more intervention from Congress unless he gets his foreign policy together. "He'll find himself with the kind of micromanagement a president should not have to put up with," Leahy said.

Some of Clinton's aides lavishly defended their boss in response to the recent drumbeat of criticism. One senior adviser described the Clinton "imprint" on foreign policy as "strong," "sure-footed," "unflinching," and "far out front." But many more senior officials -- in fact most of those contacted for this article -- and a dozen lawmakers, foreign diplomats and scholars interviewed said they considered these the precise qualities that U.S. foreign policy now lacks.

As evidence, they cited the administration's recent decision to back away from its earlier enthusiastic support for a wider U.S. role in U.N. peace keeping; its decision this summer to drop its earlier insistence on lifting the U.N. embargo on arms shipments to Bosnia and back away from its willingness to launch unilateral U.S. air strikes there; its failure to present a compelling rationale for keeping U.S. forces in Somalia beyond their original humanitarian mission; and its decision last week to recall the ship carrying U.S. military advisers to Haiti.

"We have been buffeted by public opinion on Bosnia," said one senior official who added that the administration erred in "letting our rhetoric get ahead of what we were prepared to do." The official, who spoke on condition that he not be named, added that the U.S. missteps in Somalia represented "a strategic failure" that was "inexcusable."

The collegiality of Clinton's foreign policy team began to fray publicly this week, with the first anonymous interagency finger-pointing that is often the harbinger of serious trouble. Defense Secretary Aspin was said by some to be good at managing the "build-down" of the U.S. military, but disappointingly weak in public and interagency discussions. National security adviser Lake was dismissed by some as a "bureaucratic thinker" who lacks the intellect and ego to construct a workable foreign policy framework, and is so overburdened as to let vital things slip past his notice.

Several foreign diplomats and other U.S. officials who see lack of leadership laid the blame at Christopher's door, complaining that statements by the widely liked but uncharismatic secretary of state often lack passion and fail to engage the public.

"He lawyers everything to such an extreme that there is no visible enthusiasm left when he talks about it," said one official. "You get a sense that he peels so many layers off the onion {in making policy} that there is only a very small vegetable left at the end."

Asked about these criticisms, a senior foreign policy adviser acknowledged that Christopher's forte was making "steady, solid presentations," and noted that he was picked by Clinton principally because he was a "sure thing, who would make no mistakes in a" storm. But the official added that in recent months, Christopher has attempted to enhance his speaking skills by practicing with a teleprompter.

In the interview, Christopher acknowledged the criticism, but said he felt comfortable with his role as a "sound" and "steadying" adviser "in this period of time." He said, "It's a little late for me to change my personality, even though I'm from California," adding with a smile that although "I'll not become {evangelist} Billy Graham . . . maybe I can take some acting classes."

An official at another agency, summing up a widespread view of the Clinton team, said: "We have not got a Henry Kissinger -- a highly charismatic figure who is able to articulate the foreign policy . . . {and} cover the stains on the carpet."

The most direct finger-pointing has been at Clinton himself. Exasperated officials at three different agencies directed reporters' attention to a recent Baker speech outlining the need for presidents to be directly and actively engaged in foreign policy.

Russia is an exception to what officials said is Clinton's general inattention to foreign policy. He took an early and enthusiastic interest in that nation, recognizing, as one official put it, that in the 1992 American election, "people were willing to fire a certifiable foreign policy expert and hire a domestic policy expert largely because of the end of the Cold War. That gave {Clinton} an investment in keeping the Cold War over."

But while Russia has provided Clinton with some of his most visible foreign policy successes so far, critics said other moments better define his administration's overall performance. One was Christopher's inability last summer to persuade key European allies to support military action against Serb aggressors in Bosnia; another was Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff's speech in May before a group of reporters that extolled a diminished U.S. role in world affairs.

Most recently, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called a Somalia briefing given to Congress last week by Christopher and Aspin "the least effective, least coherent, least responsible" he had ever seen.

Even a Clinton loyalist, normally circumspect Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), seemed chagrined. Asked if Clinton needed a better foreign policy team, he said, "There is always room for improvement."

Staff writers Helen Dewar, John M. Goshko, Thomas W. Lippman, and Kevin Merida contributed to this report.