The grim-faced figure of Jose Ramos-Horta, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, arrived in Washington yesterday with an unwelcome back-to-school message.

The gist was this: Half a world away--in a territory that has fewer people than the city of Boston, in a place that is partly a relic of the colonial era and partly the product of a defunct dictatorship--the credibility and the moral authority of the United States and United Nations are at stake.

The place is East Timor, a former Portuguese colony seized by Indonesia in 1975, which last week voted overwhelmingly against autonomy, thus for independence, in a referendum allowed by Indonesia and conducted by the United Nations. Ever since, militias backed by Indonesian soldiers have been killing, burning and looting.

This, said Ramos-Horta, is the latest litmus test of America's humanitarian impulse to intervene to save innocents abroad.

"What is the West doing--the West that went to Bosnia, that went to Serbia, bombed Serbia back to the Stone Age in the name of human rights, to prevent ethnic cleansing?" Ramos-Horta asked at the National Press Club yesterday. "The U.N. [and] the international community said, 'We stand by the East Timorese. We will not let them down.' . . . And now what is going to be the fate of the East Timorese?"

The community of civilized nations was supposed to have shown its mettle just three months ago with its war to stop ethnic repression in the Serbian province of Kosovo. It was, President Clinton said at the time, a war to show that the world would act, when possible, to block crimes against humanity and bring their perpetrators to justice.

"I think there's an important principle here that I hope will be now upheld in the future," he said in comments that have been labeled the Clinton Doctrine. "If the world community has the power to stop it, we ought to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing."

But there has been no worldwide crackdown on violators of human rights. In the Congo, Sierra Leone and other places, victims continue to appeal for foreign intervention. And the Clinton administration has been circumspect about the obligation to intervene without Indonesia's consent.

"The question of East Timor and Kosovo are not the same," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Tuesday. "It doesn't mean we care less about East Timor than we care about Kosovo, but it does mean that they are different places with different national interests, different histories, different factors at play, and people should be very careful before they throw analogies around."

In a briefing at the White House yesterday, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, also dismissed parallels with Kosovo. "You know, my daughter has a very messy apartment up in college; maybe I shouldn't intervene to have that cleaned up," he said. "I don't think anybody ever articulated a doctrine which said we ought to intervene wherever there's a humanitarian problem. That's not a doctrine, that's just a kind of prescription for, you know, America to be all over the world and ineffective."

The United States "cannot be and should not be viewed as the policeman of the world," said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, adding that the Clinton administration is "not planning on any insertion of peacekeeping forces." The United States, he said, would "act where it's in our national interest to act and where we can act effectively, certainly in conjunction with allies--alone, if necessary, if it's in our vital interest."

There is little national interest in East Timor. Indeed, if there is a dominant U.S. interest, it might well be to maintain good relations with Indonesia, the world's fourth-largest nation, which is struggling with its own political transition and which could face separatist movements in other parts of its vast Pacific archipelago. "Timor is a speed bump on the road to dealing with Jakarta, and we've got to get over it safely," said Douglas H. Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center. "Indonesia is such a big place and so central to the stability of the region."

"Indonesia is a very important strategic partner of ours," added an Australian diplomat. To send Australian troops there in defiance of Indonesia's wishes, he said, would be "a bit like you going to war with Canada."

Hence the effort by the United States and the United Nations to use vague threats about damage to Indonesia's relationships to try to obtain an invitation for a peacekeeping force to do what Indonesia's own troops cannot, or will not, do.

Ramos-Horta had little patience for such temporizing. If Kosovo warranted international action, East Timor deserves it even more, he said. Whereas Kosovo was recognized as part of Serbia's sovereign territory, East Timor has never been recognized by the United Nations as part of Indonesia and has just held an internationally monitored vote for independence, he noted.

While Rubin argued that the war in Kosovo was the culmination of years of atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, Ramos-Horta contended that Indonesia "has breached every principle of humanitarian law." He said the expulsions of refugees from U.N., International Red Cross and church sanctuaries "constitute war crimes similar to the crimes perpetrated by [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic" in Kosovo.

Citing attacks on Catholic churches and clergy, he added: "What we see in East Timor is an ethnic cleansing, religious cleansing."

"It is understandable that people should ask why we were so outraged in Kosovo and so tepid in East Timor," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who introduced a bill yesterday urging a cutoff of assistance to Indonesia from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and U.S. government.

"We have been ready to get involved in Europe and more reticent in Africa and Asia," Feingold said. "And the justification is not strategic, but humanitarian or genocide. And when that's the issue, how can there be a difference from Rwanda or East Timor?"

Ramos-Horta said there was little time for delay. He complained about the "lack of political will by the powers that be"--namely, the United States--"to move beyond diplomatic demarche into concrete action."

Without such action, he said, the death toll will mount and "I don't see how . . . people would ever trust again the United Nations. I don't believe that the United Nations will survive this tragedy."