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The Clinton administration's pledge of limited help for the U.N. force approved for East Timor recognizes two fundamental realities.

The first is that little gets done in the international arena without some involvement of the world's most powerful nation. The other is that the United States cannot -- and should not -- take the lead in every confrontation.

Within those parameters, current plans for a few hundred U.S. troops give Americans a background role without totally ignoring our responsibility to help stop intolerable carnage. The U.S. troops will airlift equipment and people and provide communications. They might also help coordinate the activities of disparate foreign forces brought together quickly to stop the slaughters being carried out by Indonesian militias opposed to East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence.

But the bulk of the anticipated 7,000-strong intervention force will be comprised of Australians, who are much closer to the island and therefore should assume the lion's share of the responsibility for quelling the massacres in East Timor, which Indonesia invaded in 1975.

That doesn't, of course, guarantee that more troops from both the United States and elsewhere won't be needed. If the Indonesian army, suspected of abetting the militiamen, doesn't take seriously the sanctions imposed by Washington -- including the suspension of arms sales the army covets -- restoring order will prove more difficult than initially envisioned.

The Kosovo experience -- in which Washington's early vow not to commit ground troops probably prolonged the Serbian offensive -- also indicates the folly of taking any options off the table up front.

Still, the administration's intention of letting Australia and others do the heavy lifting is a welcome change after sanctions imposed by the United States and others opened the door for a U.N. force.

It's important now that those sanctions not be lifted until Indonesian President B.J. Habibie and his military leaders actually follow through. They must cooperate with the U.N. troops and stop the violence that has killed or forced from their homes tens of thousands of East Timorese.

Stopping the world's fourth-largest country from tacitly sanctioning mass murder to thwart democracy and self-determination is not only in Washington's interest, it's also in the interest of the rest of the world. In the post-Cold War era, it's proper that Washington let the rest of the world take the lead in pursuing those interests whenever possible. And it's certainly possible in East Timor.

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