WHEN HE INTERVENED on behalf of peace in Northern Ireland's smoldering cauldron of religious hatred, President Clinton did what outstanding American presidents have been doing since the birth of the republic: He gambled.

The venture could have ended in disaster. His decisions to permit Sinn Fein firebrand Gerry Adams to visit the United States in 1994 and then to dispatch former Sen. George Mitchell to Belfast as his chief negotiator might have emboldened critics to shout louder than ever that Clinton was a disaster when it came to managing U.S. foreign affairs.But the first chapter of Clinton's daring adventure ended heroically on Good Friday when former Catholic and Protestant foes signed a historic peace agreement. Upon receiving the good news, Clinton declared, "After a 30-year winter of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland today has the promise of a springtime of peace."

A springtime of peace! What could be more encouraging to families, regardless of religious faith, who have lived from one season to the next in terror?

The second chapter now is under way as participants in the peace process seek to persuade their followers to ratify the terms of the agreement when they vote May 22.

If the peace plan becomes operational, the next and possibly most critical chapter will focus on efforts of once-hostile forces to adhere to its precepts.

Although much still needs to be done, it is not too early for Clinton and other leaders who have planted the banner of peace in Northern Ireland to take a bow.

They, including Mitchell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and leaders of various factions, have taken an unprecedented step toward ending bloodshed and heartbreak that for three decades have turned neighbors into enemies.

As for Clinton, if all the chapters end happily, he will have proved that he's not a naive, bumbling former Southern governor who can't handle global issues. He already has demonstrated wise leadership in Bosnia, where American and other U.N. troops have halted rampant killing.

In the Persian Gulf, he has kept American forces on the alert rather than accept at face value Saddam Hussein's claim that he has opened to U.N. inspectors all possible hiding places of weapons of mass destruction.

In 1993, he dispatched U.S. Navy vessels to Haiti and then, in a humiliating gesture, withdrew them when rebels gathered at the waterfront in protest. But he was able to correct that problem later when he sent former President Jimmy Carter, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and then-Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia to Haiti to persuade the military dictators to depart.

Following his meeting this past week with Latin American leaders in Chile, he soon will be off to England for the annual summit session of the seven industrial powers that formed a bulwark against communist expansion during the Cold War. Swiftly changing events have made it possible for Russia now to participate in those deliberations.

Almost everyone involved in the Irish talks agrees that Clinton played an indispensable role. The night before the former foes affixed their signatures to the agreement, the president spent hours on the telephone explaining, cajoling and winning their support. At 3 a.m. he had a lengthy conversation with Mitchell, who had chaired the talks for 21 months.

Clinton recognized then, as he does now, that the whole patiently sculpted process can be destroyed by bombs of terrorists who oppose the agreement.

But in laying his leadership and that of his country on the line to achieve a bold objective, Clinton was doing what his most illustrious predecessors had done.

If presidents are to inscribe their names boldly on the pages of history, they cannot be bound by the status quo or the naysaying of critics who lack vision.

The Constitution itself is the master work of men who dared. George Washington gambled when he accepted leadership of a new government based on the revolutionary principle that free people can govern themselves.

Thomas Jefferson dared when he bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon for $15 million and then dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their monumental journey of discovery to learn what the young nation had just bought.

And so it has gone throughout our history. All of our great achievements have emanated from the courage and perseverance of men and women who were willing to experiment, to leap defiantly over the walls of complacency.

Clinton will leave the White House with a checkered legacy. But if all continues to go well in Northern Ireland, one of the bright spots will be the Good Friday peace pact he was instrumental in achieving.