THE coup in Haiti has left Port-au-Prince in political chaos and raised a touchy question for the US: If American troops went halfway around the world to restore the emir of Kuwait, why shouldn't they do the same thing for freely elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide?The Bush administration has been more than happy to let the Organization of American States take the lead in threatening the Haitian coup leaders. It has implicitly backed the OAS threat of force unless Mr. Aristide is allowed to return. But given the dramas unfolding elsewhere in the world, stability in a small island nation with no oil is just not at the top of the White House list of worries. It's clear administration officials hope some resolution can be reached through OAS auspices and that the whole situation will then fade quietly away. Ironically, one major reason for the administration's hesitation is the long United States history of dispatching marines to Latin America to enforce American notions of law and order. "You've got to be very very careful of using United States forces in this hemisphere," President Bush said last week. As of this writing the situation in Haiti is still unsettled. The OAS delegation dispatched over the weekend to read the riot act to the apparent coup leader, Brig. Gen. Raoul Cedras, returned with no agreement made on Aristide's restoration. General Cedras denied that he or the Army was in political control of the country and said the president could return only if all segments of society agreed. Military radio broadcasts took a harder line, calling Aristide's return "non-negotiable." The leader of the Haitian Senate, Dejean Belizaire, said the country's legislature was considering appointment of an interim president, to be followed by new elections in 90 days. This proposal was not discussed with the OAS mission, however, and OAS representatives continued to insist that hemisphere-wide economic sanctions will be imposed unless Aristide returns. The populist Aristide has drawn much criticism from business and other Haitian elites about alleged unconstitutional actions. The president didn't seek legislative ratification of his nominee for Supreme Court chief justice, for instance. He's been accused of condoning "necklacing killing political opponents by placing tires around their necks and setting the tires on fire. In a meeting with a small group of reporters and foreign policy experts at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Washington, Aristide said that he in fact condemned "necklacing" and merely warned that the people "might try to make justice themselves" if frustrated. He denied that a recently formed presidential security force was a private army similar to the Duvalier-era Tontons Macoutes. "All presidents have security," he said. While the OAS doesn't condone abuse of power, there's no question that Aristide is popular among the largely poor populace of Haiti. His election last year, watched closely by foreign election monitors, was unquestionably legitimate. But to some it's still surprising the OAS has gone as far as it has. After all, this is the same organization that voted to condemn the US invasion of Panama. The key change has been in the member nations themselves, points out Robert Pastor, an Emory University political science professor and Haiti expert. Almost all are themselves now duly constituted democracies that could feel threatened by a coup in a neighboring nation. Professor Pastor says the US should certainly contribute troops if it comes to military force. "The pursuit of democracy is a central national interest of our country," he says. Haiti could be a test case, he says. If the OAS succeeds in returning Aristide to power, either through threats, sanctions, or use of force, the next step could be creation of a permanent OAS collective-security mechanism. "We have the real potential for creating the first international system for guaranteeing democracy," says Pastor. Of course, an invasion is far from fait accompli. Some kind of negotiated return could still be reached. Restoration of Aristide using foreign troops would not necessarily restore his power, says Peter Hakim, staff director of the Inter-American Dialogue. He would still have the problem of consolidating his authority. "There's no question he's going to have a terrible time," Mr. Hakim says. "Of course, he was having a terrible time in the first place." A peaceful restoration of the ousted president could strengthen the end of democratic reformers vis-a-vis the old regime - as it has in the Soviet Union. And it's clear that the OAS and the Bush administration deeply hope a peaceful restoration is in the offing. But the use of force has been mentioned, even if only as a far-off, last resort, and it was just such a marker that led to the dispatch of half a million Americans to the Persian Gulf.