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The Clinton administration, preparing for a possible invasion of Haiti, went to the United Nations to ask for prior approval and got it. Seems like a simple act of international propriety. On the face of it, Clinton is merely aping what George Bush did before the gulf war.

But Iraq is very different from Haiti. Iraq is far away. It had a formidable army that threatened serious fighting. The United State needed allies to share the perhaps considerable burdens ahead. It needed Saudi territory to stage a counterinvasion. To induce others to sign up, it needed international cover.Cover, leverage, allies: In Haiti none of this applies. It is a pushover perched on a tiny nearby island. An invasion would be virtually unopposed. There is no need for allied soldiers or foreign staging rights.

In fact, the appropriate analogy is not Bush in Iraq but Bush in Panama. Bush determined that Noriega was a threat to American interests. Confident that he had right, power and American interests on his side, he did the job and asked questions later.

The Clinton administration is deeply uncertain about right, distrustful of American power and disoriented regarding American interests. It is, accordingly, the first administration in American history to ask U.N. approval for intervention in our own hemisphere.

And Clinton did not just ask permission. He already dealt away American interests in order to get it. In a deal largely unremarked, the United Nations last month quietly approved Russian "peacekeeping" troops in formerly Soviet Georgia. Russia had threatened to veto U.N. approval of a Haiti invasion if refused a free hand in its former colony.

These are the same Russian troops that stirred up the Georgian trouble they are now charged with pacifying. Their role is less peacekeeping than restoring a small piece of the old Soviet empire and signaling Russia's intent to re-establish hegemony over the rest.

The Russians might restore their hegemony regardless, but they covet international recognition of their power grab. And in the Security Council we gave it to them. In return for what? For Haiti - a living hell for which we have no desire and even less need.

Only last month, Clinton led off a string of justifications for intervention in Haiti by saying "First of all, it's in our back yard." One does not ask permission to put out a fire in one's own back yard.

We come here to the root weakness of the Clinton foreign policy: It has no conception of the prerogatives of power. It appreciates the obligations of power - in Rwanda, for example, the world cries out for someone to "do something" and Clinton (rightly) rushes in. But with obligations come prerogatives. And to these prerogatives the administration is entirely dead.

It is the prerogative of a great power to do what it must to secure its interests without asking. China sends warships to secure a South China Sea oil patch it claims from Vietnam. Deng Xiaoping does not ask for U.S. approval. Yet Clinton, absurdly, seeks Deng's approval to act in Haiti. (At the Security Council, he got an abstention.)

Moreover, unlike China, we are a global superpower. We shoulder unique responsibilities. We are not a country like any other. Yet the Clinton administration, running around the U.N. gathering signatures for our Haitian send-off, acts as if we are.

Such thinking comes naturally to the lawyers who make up the Clinton team. After all, here everyone is equal under the law. When Warren Christopher represented his clients, the rules applied to everyone.

But the international system is utterly different. In that arena, the players are radically unequal, the law is but a piece of paper, and there is no outside source of enforcement. In fact, the only enforcer is the big guy on the block, the superpower, which in this post-Cold War era happens to be us.

It is we who take the risk to restore order when disorder arises. It is we who bear the brunt of war to secure the oil supplies of Japan and Germany and the world's other free riders. It is we who mount air relief to Rwanda.

We are not an ordinary player. We are the world's fireman, on whose exertions the rest of the world rides free. In return, we are entitled to certain prerogatives.

When our interests are threatened, we have well earned - from those who benefit from our actions elsewhere - room to maneuver. A nation with such global burdens both needs and is owed the prerogative to act expeditiously and independently to secure its own interests.

A great power does not ask for such prerogatives. (Once you've asked for it, you've forfeited it.) A great power feels it, asserts it, exercises it. Yet this administration does not move unless the U.N. nods, Micronesia applauds, and a dozen allies hold our hand.

I happen to believe that invading Haiti is a bad idea. But if Clinton thinks Haiti is an important national interest, he should act. Scrounging for prior approval from Security Council members Djibouti and Oman is not an act of propriety. It is an act of flaccidity.

It betrays not just a lack of self-confidence but a profound misapprehension of America's place in the world.