Enjoying less room to grandstand than his critics in Congress, President Clinton opted for a measured withdrawal from Somalia on American terms, not undignified flight. He had a duty to weigh the credibility of American and U.N. commitments around the world.

By allowing six months before all but a few hundred U.S. technicians leave, the president argues he can provide for an orderly handoff to U.N. troops. Clinton's new envoy, Robert Oakley, will seek to apply his past experience in Somalia and his proven diplomatic skill to that country's need for political mediation.In the meantime, the president is doubling the strength of the American contingent within the now 28,000-strong U.N. operation. This comes too late to protect the 15 Americans killed this past week and 77 wounded. Nor can it redeem the reputation of Defense Secretary Les Aspin who turned down his field commander's urgent request a month ago for armored troops.

But the 1,700 new ground troops and 3,600 Marines and sailors stationed offshore should prevent a repeat of last week's grisly debacle, when U.S. Army Rangers undertook a raid with inadequate support.

That the United States must withdraw, however, is certain. It must extricate itself from a mission under-taken from generous motives but with unrealistic goals. In Mogadishu, it has degenerated into futile urban war, costly in both American and Somali lives.

To fully stabilize Somalia and prevent its sinking back into anarchy and famine would require a prolonged colonial trusteeship, in a place where the United States has no major interest. This country has no business taking on any such venture, nor is Clinton serious about it - witness his prolonged inattention to Somalia, followed by finger-pointing when Americans were killed and continuing policy confusion.

Once American troops have come home, there will be time to wrestle with the fact that the United Nations is no better equipped than this country for nation building, a task beyond its charter and for which Washington pays 30 percent of the bill.

Finally, lurking just over the horizon is the president's commitment, under certain conditions, to send 25,000 troops to Bosnia.