The failure of the United Nations to prevent bloodshed in East Timor, despite clear warnings from officials inside and outside the organization, is reigniting a debate about whether the world body is equipped to deal with urgent humanitarian crises, particularly inside the borders of sovereign states.

At the U.N. General Assembly last week, Secretary General Kofi Annan called for even greater U.N. involvement in conflicts within national borders, saying that state sovereignty "is being redefined." President Clinton reaffirmed his own interventionist impulse. "When we are faced with deliberate, organized campaigns to murder whole peoples or expel them from their land, the care of victims is important, but not enough," he said.

Yet many doubt whether the United Nations can adapt, or whether key member countries such as the United States want it to adapt, to meet these new demands and expectations. In responding to the crisis in East Timor -- just as in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Kosovo -- the world body was hamstrung by the absence of a standing U.N. military force, schisms in a Security Council where five nations have veto power, a shortage of funds, and the plodding, insulated and overly deferential dynamics of the 185-member organization.

The disaster in East Timor is a case study of the organization's problems, and it raises tough questions for the Clinton doctrine of humanitarian-driven interventionism.

On the eve of signing an agreement with Indonesia in early May to allow an independence referendum in the territory of East Timor, several senior U.N. officials were full of apprehension rather than joy.

True, the referendum would let the East Timorese decide their fate, 24 years after Indonesia occupied the former Portuguese colony, and Annan would call the May 5 signing "an historic moment."

But the Indonesian government had scratched out sections in the original U.N. draft that demanded the disarming of anti-independence militias and the confining of Indonesian soldiers to barracks. The Indonesian foreign ministry also had rejected an April 30 letter from Annan that tried to get Indonesian President B.J. Habibie's personal commitment to security guarantees during the referendum. And top Indonesian military officers had refused to meet a negotiating team sent by Annan in April.

"I cannot hide my apprehensions regarding the course on which we are about to embark," one senior U.N. official wrote in an internal memorandum just before the signing. Citing the possibility of intimidation, vote rigging and violence, he wrote: "Apart from the moral opprobrium that would be heaped on the U.N. were we to follow such a course, the consequences for the long-term stability of East Timor would be disastrous. Will any of our `friends' come to redeem our reputation? I somewhat doubt it."

Four months later, those words seem prophetic. East Timor's capital, Dili, lies in ruins, and the United Nations' reputation is badly bruised. Early this month, as militias rampaged in Dili, Nobel Peace Prize co-winner and East Timor independence leader Jose Ramos-Horta said, "I don't see how people around the world can trust the United Nations again."

East Timor had been widely ignored since Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. Although the United Nations condemned the annexation at the time, few major powers -- especially the United States -- were ready for a showdown over it. But the issue festered. A small guerrilla group fighting for independence became a persistent nuisance, and the awarding of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize to two East Timor leaders focused attention on the territory.

The door to independence opened in January this year, when Habibie, who succeeded the longtime authoritarian leader Suharto in 1998, announced that he would let East Timor choose between independence and autonomy within Indonesia.

At the United Nations, Habibie's offer was seen as a "window of opportunity" that could soon slam shut, said a senior diplomat in New York. With Indonesian elections scheduled for September (now October), no one knew who might replace Habibie and what that person's attitude would be toward East Timor.

There was an odd, anachronistic element in the negotiations that followed Habibie's offer: The talks were held between Indonesia and East Timor's former colonial ruler, Portugal. Other countries, including the United States, Japan and Australia, had more bargaining power in Jakarta. But bargaining with Portugal suited Indonesia, and the United Nations, with its respect for historical decolonization formulas, accepted the role of mediator between the two, diplomats said.

Despite Habibie's offer, it was unclear how sincere Indonesia was and whether its military would carry out an agreement on East Timor. In April, army-backed militiamen killed more than 45 refugees seeking refuge in a church compound. When U.N. negotiators pushed for a peace commission that would include two bishops, pro-independence parties, anti-independence militias, Indonesian military and U.N. forces, Indonesian Defense Minister Wiranto set up his own commission without U.N. involvement. U.N. officials feared that Indonesia would try to intimidate voters, then contest referendum results if they were close.

Because the draft agreement gave responsibility to Indonesia for security, the United Nations wanted assurances. On April 30, Annan sent his letter to Habibie and had it rejected. On May 4, he sent Indonesia a memorandum laying out "necessary security conditions." He got no reply, diplomatic sources said.

It was an awkward moment. NATO was in the middle of its war over Kosovo. The United States had been content to take a supporting role, and Portugal "feared that if this [referendum] didn't happen before Habibie left office, it would never happen," U.N. diplomats said. On May 5, Annan, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and Jaime Gama, Portugal's minister of foreign affairs, signed the accord.

"Alatas took Portugal to the cleaners," said one diplomat familiar with the negotiations.

Stanley Roth, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Asia, was the U.S. point person on East Timor. He has made 13 trips to Indonesia in two years. But a senior U.S. official said Roth wasn't at the table in the talks with Indonesia, and the Clinton administration was appalled that the agreement excluded U.N. peacekeepers and provided for just 300 civilian police and 50 unarmed U.N. military liaison officers.

"There was a great desire to get this issue off the agenda, and [the United Nations] saw in Habibie's proposal a way to do that," said Adam Schwarz, an expert on Indonesia at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. "The problem is, they were not asking the hard questions about whether this was workable."

"Let me say the United Nations was not naive about the history of violence in East Timor during the past 24 years," Annan said this month. But "nobody in their wildest dreams thought what we are witnessing could have happened." He added, "We are no fools."

Immediately after the May 5 agreement, the militias stepped up their campaign of intimidation. The United States and Australia persuaded Indonesia to let the civilian police and U.N. liaison officers carry light sidearms.

Even as violence increased, Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country and former head of the movement of non-aligned nations, got diplomatic support. U.N. Security Council supporters included the tiny African nations of Gambia and Gabon; Bahrain, a leader in the non-aligned movement; Malaysia; and Russia. Japan, one diplomat said, "would look for the silver lining in any cloud."

Officials from the world body and five countries -- the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Japan -- began meeting weekly in May to plan a peacekeeping operation that would keep order after Indonesia's anticipated withdrawal from the territory in November. They also discussed evacuation plans in case violence forced the sudden departure of U.N. personnel and other foreigners.

But before the referendum, no one did any planning for a multinational intervention force capable of stopping possible militia violence.

"You can't go to the [Security] Council and say, `We think Indonesia is going to implement a scorched-earth policy and we need a policy of foreign intervention now,' " said a diplomat familiar with the planning. "The politics of the council are such that you can't paint a worst-case scenario."

Instead, diplomacy was wielded to try to persuade Indonesia to keep order. Among others, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Ralston, spoke to Gen. Wiranto a number of times, stressing the need to maintain order.

Nonetheless, by the Aug. 30 vote some 10,000 militia members, including 2,000 heavily armed irregulars, had flooded East Timor, according to U.S. estimates. Hours before the final vote count was announced, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, Robert Fowler, voiced concern about post-ballot violence and asked whether there were contingency plans to stop it. "Nobody wanted to talk about it," said a diplomat present at the meeting.

On Sept. 3, the referendum results were announced: 78.5 percent of East Timorese had voted for independence. Militias went on a rampage. Within three days, more than 200,000 people -- a quarter of East Timor's population -- were driven from their homes and hundreds were killed while Annan, Clinton and others urged Indonesia to restore order.

In the United States, there were divided views on how to aid the East Timorese. With U.S. forces taxed by Kosovo and other peacekeeping commitments, Pentagon and National Security Council officials resisted yet another foreign military effort. "People always understood things could go badly," a senior Pentagon official said. "But under the circumstances, we felt it would be much better if there were an Asian face on this."

Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright favored U.S. support for an Australian-led international force. A senior U.S. diplomat said American support for the operation was influenced by memories of massacres in Bosnia, and by the realization that the Indonesian army was "not the solution, they were the problem." He said, "Everyone was thinking we've got another Yugoslavia on our hands."

After a week of threats from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations and Washington, Indonesia agreed to allow an international force to restore order.

Some U.N. officials have since asked themselves whether Annan should have postponed the referendum, as he was able to under the May 5 agreement. U.N. diplomats answer that Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese leader under house arrest; Ramos-Horta; and Constancio Pinto, a former guerrilla fighter who represents East Timor at the United Nations, all favored proceeding.

The New York diplomat also said that many people misread Indonesia's intentions, including U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Stapleton Roy. When the military pulled out troops and replaced its East Timor commander, many analysts thought that meant the military was accepting independence. Few believed that Indonesia would risk billions of dollars in foreign investment and IMF loans by launching a scorched-earth policy in plain view of international observers.

"There was some real hope about it working out right up to the time the vote was announced and all hell broke loose," said a senior U.S. official.

Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.