DID THE REPUBLICANS in Congress meet in a torch-lighted cavern one late night and take a solemn blood oath to mess up foreign policy, or does this stuff just come naturally to them?

Oath or not, they are, in the manner of Ollie to Stan, getting us into one fine mess after another. They are working on two just now.The Senate has voted to pay the notorious American arrears in U.N. dues, some $1 billion, at long last opening the prospect we will be relieved of our mantle as the world's biggest deadbeat.

But wait! No, the Senate hasn't actually done that at all. It has made the payment conditional upon no U.N. funds going to family planning agencies that lobby for lawful abortion. President Clinton has said over and over he would veto any such rider.

As certainly he should. Imagine the United States taking the astonishing position that the policies of international organizations should be dictated by televangelist mogul Pat Roberstson through his Christian Coalition, which is running a political protection racket on the GOP.

So, after all, the United Nations won't get paid, which is OK with Republicans who about half want to kill it anyway, and the party can turn to the menacing religious-right heavies and plead that it at least tried to come up with the payoff.

Meanwhile, the House International Relations Committee has voted 31-5 to impose automatic sanctions on any nation practicing religious persecution. U.S. exports and aid would be barred and Washington would block any World Bank or International Monetary Fund assistance.

The scheme found the president pleading with Christian evangelical leaders last week, no doubt futilely, to withdraw their support.

The United States already is a diligent promoter of religious freedom, to the point of pounding poor Germany because it can't imagine oddball Scientology is a legit church. (Something the United States itself bought into only after the "church" had harassed the Internal Revenue Service to distraction with more than 2,000 lawsuits.)

Looking for policy shortcuts, Congress over the years has slapped sanctions on a growing roll call of baddies - Iran, Iraq, Cuba - and on everything from drug policy to human rights.

The main effect has been not to perfect the world but to perfect U.S. hypocrisy. The White House has had to swear, for instance, that Mexican drug enforcement and Chinese human rights are coming along nicely, or at least nicely enough to dodge punishments that would kill the pragmatic relations the United States must have with both nations.

As Clinton tried to point out to the evangelicals, by removing policy flexibility, hair-trigger sanctions would force Washington to be less rather more active for religious freedom.

The rest of the world does not mistake us for the paragon we believe ourselves to be. Capital punishment and draconian imprisonments mark us a human rights offender to most nations. Almost alone, we have refused to join international conventions on children's rights, to protect women from discrimination, to use ocean resources lawfully and to protect biological diversity.

A little humility in the morality hustle would become us.