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Former President Jimmy Carter's free-wheeling diplomatic mission to North Korea amply demonstrates why we have only one president at a time.

Carter went with the best of intentions to a hostile country with which we seemed to be moving inexorably toward a confrontation over its decision to arm itself with nuclear weapons.He also, however, went with a point of view. The trouble is it didn't happen to be the view of the incumbent president of the United States, whose responsibility it is to deal with the problem.

By producing all sorts of new possibilities, Carter shook things up and may even have broken the stalemate between Clinton and aging North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. But he upstaged the White House poohbahs and the State Department elite, who distrust anything for which they can't take credit themselves.

It will not be clear for some time whether Carter's visit was a genuine breakthrough, a public relations blip or a seriously complicating factor in the struggle to get North Korea to freeze its nuclear program and submit to full international inspection.

In the meantime, domestic politics seem to have taken precedence over a threatened Clinton economic embargo that was as controversial as it was frightening and seemed - at least initially - to be counterproductive.

The U.S. strategy was already resisted by other countries in the region, whose cooperation would be necessary if sanctions were to succeed. Making it work was going to be very complicated and very difficult.

So Carter may either have provided Clinton with political cover to regroup or he may have undercut Clinton's efforts to bring reluctant allies aboard. We don't know: Stuff like that the information highway doesn't tell you.

But no president is going to admit a former president dug him out of a hole, particularly when it isn't clear just what happened and there may be an opportunity later to blame him if matters worsen.

So Clinton kept his distance from Carter, paying him the minimum respect required of his former position but not going any further.

In fact, Carter made it easy for foreign policy officials to dump on his mission. And he made it practically impossible for President Clinton, constantly under criticism for lack of experience, to accept his advice without seeming to be a junior pupil getting a foreign policy lesson.

Carter is, in most minds, still an unsuccessful one-term president remembered more for being scared by a killer rabbit than for the enormous step toward Middle East peace made with the Camp David accords.

But on his own in North Korea, back on the world stage dealing with important issues of life and death after a long hiatus, Carter could not contain himself. Unlike most other past presidents, he has devoted his years at pasture to scholarly efforts to resolve long-standing intern- ational conflicts.

He went there as a private citizen, but former presidents are never entirely private. They are constantly briefed secretly on public policy by administration officials, although they get a rather sanitized version. They still carry that impressive title and the right to taxpayer-paid security.

Clinton has ample justification to be irritated with Carter, particularly after Carter declared the Korean nuclear crisis over solely on the basis of his own conversation with Kim. In the ego game, an incumbent outranks a former president.

Yet presidents forgive lesser offenses from lesser men they judge to be well-meaning, and there still could be a future for a Clinton-Carter international partnership. Depending, of course, on North Korea.