Several months ago, President Clinton told the American people that the United States and its NATO allies were obliged to engage in an air war against Serbia to prevent the genocide of Kosovo residents.

Now that the United Nations tribunal investigating war crimes in the Balkans has issued its report, a somewhat different perspective is starting to emerge.According to recent press accounts, 2,108 bodies have been exhumed in Kosovo. While the final tally will undoubtedly be higher, it will certainly not approach the 10,000 that Western officials had cited as the civilian death toll.

If the number of ethnic Albanians killed is roughly 3,000, it will approximate the estimated number of Serbs and Albanians killed by NATO bombing.

One could make the argument that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic drove people from their homes and engaged in a calculated campaign to rid the province of ethnic Albanians. Moreover, how can anyone be callous about the slaughter of even several thousand people?

But the justification for U.S. intervention was genocide - and thus far there is very little evidence to support that claim.

Some ethnic Albanians contend that investigators have been insufficiently diligent in finding bodies. Serbians from Kosovo, however, maintain that they were and continue to be the targets of Kosovar violence, justifying their counterinsurgency tactics.

What the evidence - tentative as it may be - suggests is that the claims of the Clinton administration were greatly exaggerated either because rationalization for intervention was needed or because intelligence was faulty.

In any case, the reason for intervention cannot be supported by the tribunal's findings. This in turn raises questions about the projection of American power.

If the loss of several thousand people or the systematic dislocation of people warrants intervention, there are dozens of candidates across the globe.

Hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered in the Sudan over the last two decades. Tribal war in the Congo and Rwanda has resulted in the deaths of close to a million people and the dislocation of many millions. Massacres of a bestial nature occurred in East Timor, but still the United States did not intervene. Other examples abound.

The idea that the United States will use its military assets for humanitarian reasons - however they are justified - will at some point exhaust the nation's will to resist when real threats must be countered.

Here is the dilemma: The use of force demands national acceptance, or at least acquiescence, but exaggerated claims in behalf of force ultimately weaken national resolve.

President Clinton's explanation for U.S. intervention in the Balkans may turn out to heighten skepticism about executive decisions and undermine the ability of the chief executive to rally the nation should that be necessary.