As he begins his sixth year in office, President Clinton presides over a nation at peace, unrivaled in its military and economic might.
Yet Mr. Clinton still finds himself assailed over his stewardship of foreign affairs. Critics say he is guided more by narrow political calculus than by a long-term strategy for ensuring US security in the 21st century.
Clinton bristles at such contentions. He argues that he has enhanced democracy and development abroad as well as economic well-being at home. And 1998, he pledges, "will be a year of vigorous action."
Indeed, the next few months will quickly test Clinton's promise as he confronts a raft of complex issues - from the Middle East peace process to the Asian economic meltdown - that hold enormous consequences for United States security and prestige. Also at stake is his legacy as an international statesman.
"The view is widely held that, unless drastic change occurs within the next year or so, President Clinton is unlikely to be remembered for his foreign policy record," writes Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy, in the journal's latest issue.
Clinton's most-recent major effort is an attempt to rejuvenate his troubled peace plan in Bosnia. He visited there last week and has indefinitely extended the US troop presence. Now he hopes personal intervention can save another of his keystone initiatives: the Mideast peace process.
Clinton is to meet separately in January in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He hopes to win concessions from both that could revive the accords on Palestinian self-rule after 11 months of violence and deadlock.
From Mr. Netanyahu, Clinton is seeking a redeployment of Israeli troops that will deliver enough new West Bank territory to Palestinian control to satisfy Mr. Arafat. Netanyahu is also under US pressure to declare a "time-out" in the construction of new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and Jerusalem, a central cause of the current impasse.
Clinton wants Arafat to reaffirm his commitment to Israel's security, including cracking down on Islamic militants whose attacks have also undermined peace efforts. A new pact reportedly under negotiation would have the Central Intelligence Agency monitor Arafat's compliance.
"This is a vital meeting, because if [Clinton] goes away without some success, then we are in real trouble," says David Seigal, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. "The president is the last resort."
Boxing in Iraq
The outcome of Clinton's effort could impact another Middle East crisis that is dragging unresolved into the new year: Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's defiance of United Nations efforts to uncover his alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Perceived US bias toward Israel has helped undermine support among pro-West Arab states for Clinton as he takes a hard line with Iraq. He also faces opposition to use of force from France and Russia, which are eager to win lucrative Iraqi oil contracts should the UN lift sanctions.
The US won UN Security Council approval last week of a resolution demanding that Iraq immediately open to UN inspectors dozens of closed sites.
But Iraq rejected the call, leaving Clinton in a quandary over whether to continue pursuing diplomacy or use the 30,000-strong US air, naval, and ground forces in the Gulf to compel Saddam's compliance. Clinton faces criticism that the longer the stalemate lasts, the weaker the US becomes.
A revolution in Iran policy?
Clinton is also reviewing his approach to Iraq's neighbor and rival, Iran, and trying to interpret recent signals from its moderate president, Mohamad Khatami. Mr. Khatami has mixed attacks on the US government with the most-friendly gesture since the 1979 Islamic revolution, calling for "a dialogue with the American people."
His comments have fueled domestic calls for a revision in Clinton's policy of "containing" Iran. Critics say the policy is hurting relations with Europe, which has ignored Washington's calls for a trade embargo, and will deny US firms access to vast untapped oil reserves in Central Asia.
Free-trade and old debts
Other important facets of Clinton's foreign policy agenda will not be decided overseas but in Washington, where the return of the GOP-run Congress from its Christmas recess promises new battles rooted in differences over the role the US should play in the post-cold-war world.
Clinton is expected to quickly ask Congress for "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade deals. The House rejected the measure in November. He wants to possess this power by April, when he is to attend in Chile a hemispheric summit about creating a Free Trade Area of the Americans, Clinton's major regional initiative.
Administration officials also expect Clinton to push for rapid action on repaying the $32 billion owed by the US to the International Monetary Fund and some $1 billion to the UN. "It's like fast-track. It's stalled, and we will need to bring it back up again," says one official.
The IMF says it needs the US money, which was denied by the Republican majority in November, to underwrite bailouts of economically crippled East Asian nations expected to exceed $90 billion. The rescue plans are vital to cushioning the US against the impacts of the crisis, the administration argues.
The White House also insists that paying back dues to the UN is vital to maintaining US influence in the organization. Security Council support is especially important to US policy toward Iraq, it says.
Finally, Clinton will soon present for congressional review a certification of China's adherence to nuclear nonproliferation safeguards. China critics are expected to wage a major fight to reject the certification, barring the sale of billions of dollars in American civilian nuclear technology to Beijing.