Washington. -- Peacekeeping continues to be the centerpiece of the debate on foreign policy between the Clinton administration and its Republican critics because it is the centerpiece of the administration's ''Defense Revolution.''
That ''revolution'' features new conceptions of American national security and national interests, and new ideas about the appropriate use of U.S. military forces. According to those conceptions, U.S. national security is threatened by any conflict anywhere, so ''peacekeeping'' is always appropriate in situations short of real war.
A number of those new conceptions are authoritatively described in a handbook called ''Peace Operations'' released by the Department of the Army last December. The presumably authoritative handbook tells us:
* That peacekeeping operations are multinational in character, authorized by a ''competent authorizing entity" such as the United Nations or the U.S. government, commanded by a multinational command staff, and comprising multinational forces. This multinational force and command staff will be headed by a ''force commander . . . appointed by the secretary general with the consent of the U.N. Security Council,'' and report to him or a designated representative. This multinational force commander exercises ''appropriate and negotiated'' ''operational control'' over U.S. units assigned to U.N. ''peace operations.''
* That peace operations are to be carried out with minimum use of force at all stages, under U.N. rules of engagement.
* That ''settlement,'' not victory, is their goal. ''Peace operations,'' the handbook states, ''are conducted to reach a resolution by conciliation among the competing parties, rather than termination by force. . . . The concept of traditional military victory or defeat is inappropriate in peace operations.''
The handbook emphasizes that the United States is now concerned with peace in the entire, complicated world -- a world in which the identity of the ''belligerents'' and their organization may be loose, and as diverse as ''peace operations'' themselves.
Appearing last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued in opposition to the ''Peace Powers Act,'' which is designed to impose new constraints on the administration's freedom in dealing with the United Nations. She said ''well-planned'' peace operations are ''useful and cost-effective . . . in containing regional conflicts, promoting democracy and human rights, stemming refugee flows and bringing stability to regions of strategic and economic importance to the U.S.''
Wow! If peacekeeping could do all that, we could cut the costs of government even further.
From the point of view of critics like Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, a principal author of the Peace Powers Act, peace operations are neither cost-effective nor otherwise effective. Senator Dole described Republican bills in the House and Senate as ''good news for U.S. foreign policy and U.S. taxpayers.'' Both those bills would probably have the effect of reducing U.S. expenditures on ''peace operations'' by providing for ''transparency,'' full accounting and credit against the United States ''assessed'' share of U.N. costs.
Under current practices the United States pays, as its ''assessed'' share of peacekeeping costs, nearly two and one half times the amount assessed any other country. But that is only the beginning. The United States has contributed billions of dollars in addition: in transportation, air power and many other expensive services such as assisting in the evacuation of U.N. forces from Somalia.
These contributions, which Senator Dole estimates at several billion dollars, have never been fully reported. They are simply and very quietly redirected by the Clinton administration from Defense Department funds, authorized and appropriated by the Congress for conventional military purposes such as training and spare parts. When administration officials seek ''supplemental'' appropriations for necessary defense items for which the authorized funds were diverted on peacekeeping, Congress can't turn them down.
A principal goal of the critics is to ensure that funds for peacekeeping are authorized and appropriated through normal processes. Otherwise, Congress is denied its constitutional role.
Critics also complain that persistent, repeated use of military force for purposes unrelated to fighting and winning wars will undermine their ability to do the job for which they are recruited and maintained. Training military units to win wars and then assigning them to tasks that call for maximum restraint and minimum use of force creates ''cognitive dissonance,'' that is, disabling internal contradictions.
So does assigning military forces to tasks which have ''settlement,'' not victory, as their goal. Instead of transforming and spoiling the military, why not send Peace Corps men and women, send Americorps men and women. Train them in U.N. rules of engagement. This might not be useful, but it would do less harm to U.S. military effectiveness than the current approach.
But this would not serve the unmentioned purposes of Clinton administration's policies; it would not create new multinational military institutions; and it would not require a cultural revolution in the U.S. military.
Those goals too should be discussed with the Congress.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.