A Christmas Card For the President

PRESIDENT Clinton should take a break over the holidays. He deserves it, and the country needs it. Christmas is a time for spiritual inspiration, physical relaxation and mental contemplation. So, send the weary White House staff home, Mr. President; stand the White House press corps down for a few days, snuggle up around the fire with Hillary and Chelsea and Socks the cat, and watch the flames flicker and the lights on the Christmas tree wink in and out.

It would be good for this most energetic and restless of presidents to reflect on where he's come from this first year in the White House and ponder where to direct his focus in 1994.

For a president elected with only 43 percent of the vote, there have been satisfying victories. There was the budget, just squeaking by, but a victory nonetheless. There was the saving of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and, perhaps with it, the sinking of Ross Perot.

There was the moving, passionate speech against crime and lawless gun-slinging that may begin a campaign to make America safer. (I wish the president would as passionately urge his Hollywood friends to clean up movies and television.)

By the end of the year, a White House staff that had earlier seemed disorganized and erratic was beginning to find its stride, even though the modernized White House switchboard takes longer than ever to answer. (Says a Washington, D.C., telephone company operator: ``You'd be surprised how many complaints we get about that.'')

There were failures, too, in this first Clinton presidential year. Somalia was a mess inherited from the Bush administration, but it was made worse by such indecisiveness as the Clinton administration alternately hunting, then wooing, a reigning warlord. The former Yugoslavia, in its winter misery, is a terrible stain on the American (and European) conscience. Haiti is unfinished business.

As he adds up the pluses and minuses of the past year, where should the president focus his energy for the next?

At home there is his (and Hillary's) plan to restructure the nation's health-care system, wisely postponed from an overloaded 1993 agenda. It will face a battle royal in Congress.

But it is in foreign affairs, the arena in which Mr. Clinton is least confident, that some of the most difficult challenges loom.

The recent election in Russia left a nation in turmoil. The new constitution that President Boris Yeltsin wanted is approved. The rousing personal endorsement that he wanted is not. Clinton must deftly manage the United States' relationship with a Russian republic beset by its lingering ideological devils.

In Asia, the president's foreign policy team seems to have correctly determined that there lie the most promising prospects for success. The modernization of Asia is one of the most dramatic events of our times. Though Japan is in recession, its economy dominates. China's soars, as do those of Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and other Asian lands.

If the US can tap into this dynamic economic growth and encourage a parallel movement toward democracy, the rewards will be great.

But there are potential major perils for the US in Asia.

The most ominous of these lies in Pyongyang, the capital of reclusive and hard-line communist North Korea. There Kim Il Sung is obstructing international inspection teams trying to establish the extent of North Korea's nuclear development. Although Clinton says he cannot allow it, the North Koreans conceivably could already have made a crude nuclear device. If Pyongyang persists in developing nuclear weapons, Clinton must decide whether to confront the problem with force.

Then there is the puzzle for the president of how to handle relations with China. American business wants to participate in the China boom. Human rights activists want the president to use whatever leverage he has to encourage political reform in China. It is a complex problem, especially when China's present leaders bristle at what they term American ``interference'' in their internal affairs.

Happy holidays, Mr. President. The new year will require all your energy and wisdom.

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