The United States supports the United Nations' efforts to end civil wars and prevent genocide, but the world body needs to exhibit greater "realism and humility" in deciding which conflicts it is capable of stopping, President Clinton said today.

Addressing world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, Clinton said the United Nations must rely at times on regional powers--such as NATO in the Balkans, Australia in East Timor and Nigeria in West Africa--to take the lead in ending bloodshed. And it must know when to say no.

"It is easy to say 'Never again,' but much harder to make it so," said Clinton, speaking softly and stopping every so often to clear a hoarse throat. "Promising too much can be as cruel as caring too little."

Striking a note of Realpolitik, Clinton said decisions on when to intervene to save lives will still be driven primarily by national self-interest, rather than humanitarian principles. "The way the international community responds will depend on the capacity of countries to act and on their national interests," he said. "NATO acted in Kosovo, for example, to stop a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing in a place where we had important interests at stake and the ability to act effectively."

Clinton's remarks were generally supportive of the United Nations but left room for the United States and its allies to act independently. At the same time, he rebuffed the notion that the United States is obligated to intervene in faraway places.

"I know some are troubled that the United States and others cannot respond to every humanitarian catastrophe in the world. We cannot do everything, everywhere," he said. "But just because we have different interests in different parts of the world does not mean we can be indifferent to the destruction of innocents in any part of the world."

Clinton's address--which also included an appeal to the United Nations to do more to end poverty and to halt the spread of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons--was received with merely polite applause, a contrast to the standing ovation he received a year ago, when he was embroiled in impeachment hearings and many diplomats were eager to show their support.

This time around, it's the United Nations that is embroiled in crises from Kosovo to East Timor, where an Australian-led multinational force is trying to restore order after a U.N.-sponsored referendum on independence sparked a rampage by local militias and Indonesian soldiers.

In a private meeting before the speech, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan asked Clinton to help fund the U.N. operation in Kosovo, support the U.N. mission in Haiti and seek consensus within the Security Council on policy toward Iraq, according to a senior U.S. official.

The United States and Britain have made little progress this week in trying to persuade the other nations with permanent seats on the council--France, China and Russia--to ease sanctions on Iraq only if the Iraqi government cooperates on disarmament.

While Annan did "most of the talking," the senior U.S. official said, Clinton reiterated that resolving Washington's outstanding debt to the United Nations remains a "high priority."

The United States owes the world body about $1.6 billion, much of it for peacekeeping missions. The Clinton administration struck a deal last year with congressional leaders, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), that would link repayment to management reforms and budget cutting at the United Nations. But the agreement fell apart in the House, where legislators attached an antiabortion amendment to the bill funding U.N. operations.

"The United Nations is indispensable," Clinton told the General Assembly, adding that the United States has "a responsibility to equip the U.N. with the resources it needs to be effective. I have been fighting to meet that obligation and I will continue to do so."

Clinton's defense of the principle of humanitarian intervention, while popular among most diplomats here, drew a negative reaction from Russia, which opposed the NATO air war against Serbia and is now facing an Islamic secessionist movement in the Caucasus provinces of Dagestan and Chechnya. Russian Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov said the United Nations should spend more time "clamping down" on separatists and defending the principle of sovereignty.

"Instead of imposing our values on others, we have sought to promote a system of government--democracy--that empowers people to chose their own destiny," Clinton said.