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Twice now President Clinton has talked himself into a corner by issuing ultimatums that threaten military action. And twice former President Jimmy Carter has given him a face-saving way out.

Carter undoubtedly helped Clinton's credibility by saving him from military adventures in Haiti and North Korea the president had no stomach for. But that does not rate a Nobel Prize - not nearly as much as the historic peace pact signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat.In truth, the verdict on both of Carter's mediation efforts is still out.

The first, in North Korea, was not even requested by the White House. Carter simply injected himself into the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear program and met with the late Kim Il Sung in June. First he told Kim that Clinton wasn't really serious about sanctions; then he phoned Clinton to tell him that Kim had softened his hard-line stance.

Clinton canceled a planned military buildup in South Korea and opened talks with the North. They are, of course, stalled - Kim died in July, the succession is still in doubt and the North Koreans continue to balk at nuclear inspections. But they did stave off sanctions, and Carter got credit for averting what might have been a nuclear war.

Next came Haiti. This time Clinton, facing bipartisan congressional opposition and overwhelming public opinion against an invasion, asked Carter to head an 11th hour mission to persuade that country's military leaders to step down.

Carter succeeded, but only after paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were already aloft. And he may have been so eager to make a deal he outstripped his mandate and gave too much away.

Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his military cronies get amnesty for the killings, kidnappings, rapes and other forms of intimidation used against supporters of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They don't have to leave Haiti, although the supposition is that they will, and they regain access to bank accounts and other assets frozen by Washington.

Aristide gets a 15,000-man "police force" - mostly American troops with token Caribbean contingents - to ensure his return to power.

And we are committed to a long and costly intervention that goes beyond peacekeeping to nation-building. Besides emergency relief, to repair the damage wrought by our embargo, American taxpayers will be funding an economic reconstruction program that is expected to last well into the 21st century,

Most ironic of all, our GIs now have to coordinate their activities with the Haitian military, the very people they were supposed to crush.