President Clinton has accomplished some good in recent days on his trip to Europe's most troubled spots. His uplifting message to Bulgarians who are struggling with democracy, for instance, was timely and meaningful.

But his pseudo apology over the weekend for the United States' support of a Greek military junta in the 1960 and '70s was ill-timed and puzzling. It looked for all the world like he was placating the lawless mobs that were looting Athens in an illegitimate protest of his visit.Those rioters, largely the members of leftist groups that would rob Greece of its freedoms, burned nearly a dozen banks and 35 shops. They smashed store fronts and set fire to debris in the center of the streets. Sixteen people were hospitalized and 41 arrested in the mayhem.

These were not freedom lovers, nor were they legitimate protesters against U.S. foreign policy decisions 30 years ago. They were opportunists looking for any excuse to further their own warped causes. They weren't looking for an apology. They should have been either denounced or ignored.

Yet it was against this backdrop of raging incivility that Clinton chose to express his regrets for the way Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon waged the Cold War. His words were not an apology, his staff was quick to say. But, coming on the heels of an outright apology last year by Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to Greece, it was close enough.

Clinton said the United States those many years ago had "allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interest, I should say its obligation, to support democracy."

Indeed, the United States supported a military leadership that ruled with terror in Greece from 1967 to 1974. A strong argument could be made in support of Clinton's regrets, but it would be too simplistic to be credible. Foreign policy decisions must take several factors into account, including all interests and obligations. Always U.S. national interests must be foremost among them. Neither Johnson nor Nixon likely held any animosity toward Greeks. They did what they felt would best further their Cold War aims -- a cause that, thank goodness, ultimately proved successful.

Clinton himself has had to make those types of policy decisions in Kosovo, China, Rwanda and elsewhere. They are not easy decisions. People often get hurt as a result, but the rationale, generally, is that more people would be hurt if an opposite decision were made.

This president has made a habit of apologizing for what he considers to be shortcomings in U.S. history, including some caused by his own administration. This exercise has been anything but cathartic. Historians may rightly analyze and criticize. Diplomats may express regrets. But the president of the United States should be careful when second-guessing national policy decisions, especially those of the recent past. Doing so can set standards no president should be expected to attain.