When the late Gene Roddenberry created the ''Star Trek'' universe, he wrote into the basic principles of the United Federation of Planets a rule he called the ''Prime Directive.'' Simply stated, the rule prohibited intervention in the affairs of less powerful or advanced worlds, even for their own good.
When faced with large-scale suffering or brutalization, the ''Prime Directive'' poses enormous ethical challenges. Such a rule of non-intervention can't always be right, and some of Star Trek's moments of highest drama involved the decision to ignore it.
As the Clinton administration considers America's proper role in Somalia, it would do well to reflect on the implications of Roddenberry's fictional statesmanship.
When Pakistani ''peacekeepers'' in Somalia recently fired into a crowd of demonstrators, killing at least 20 people --and again with the U.N. raid on a warlord's headquarters -- the incidents compelled consideration of the enormous practical and ethical implications of intervention.
No matter how good intentions in Somalia, incidents like this will fuel animosity in that country against the presence of foreign forces.
Clan leaders like Mohamed Farrah Aidid won't have much difficulty persuading the relatives of the slain that they should join his efforts to harry the foreigners from Somali soil. The killings will quickly fade from America's consciousness. But in Somalia, the memory will live, providing the emotional fodder for what could easily become a long, bitter feud in a country where feuding is a deeply ingrained tradition.
There is talk now that American troops should be sent back to Somalia to deal with the situation. Let us pray that wiser counsel prevail. Our pridefulness may lead us to think that the deteriorating situation in Somalia reflects the difference between competent Americans and incompetent Pakistanis. But pride isn't the best adviser.
We should consider the possibility that what is happening reflects the brutal reality of Somalia's cultural traditions, traditions in which the blood feud, violence and the domination of the strong have for centuries played a central role.
Nothing Pakistani or American troops do is likely to alter this reality in the short term. It's more likely that the spirit of the blood feud will alter them, sucking them into a cycle of vengeance in which the original humanitarian aims of the intervention are irretrievably lost.
It may be hard for Americans to accept the notion that there are some problems for which there are no straightforward solutions. Yet especially in situations where power projection involves the use of force, every use of power may produce a state of war, with all the dangers and human costs war involves.
The humanitarian use of force can thus quite easily become self-contradictory to the point where, as in Somalia, the end of saving innocent human lives becomes a justification for the taking of innocent lives.
Alan Keyes is a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland.