CELEBRATED at the dark season of the year, Christmas promises hope. But it is not an entirely comfortable time, because Christmas insistently draws attention to the difference between the world as it is and the world as it might be. What's to be made of the images that come flashing to us from many places at this year's holiday?

In Somalia, troops from many countries, but mostly from the United States, have landed to feed the hungry. It's an example of military power used well to defend the weak and confound the wicked. This year's Christmas tableau is a scene in which the midday temperature goes over 100 degrees, and the gifts are sacks of grain. Somalia is a case in which the strong are helping the weak, the rich helping the poor.

But, as Scrooge quickly learned, the Ghosts of Christmas do not allow you to choose which images they put before you. They might require you to consider another scene, also including hungry children, this time in Haiti. But there are no troops distributing food and restoring peace there. To the contrary, American military power is being used to enforce an embargo that has destroyed the country's means of earning its livelihood and, if its people haven't yet reached the desperate condition of the Somalians, some of them are not far from it. How do you explain the treatment of Haiti? The Organization of American States made a mistake when it imposed the embargo on Haiti, and backing off a mistake is never a rapid process, particularly when the American government is in the midst of a presidential transition. If Somalia is part of this year's Christmas, so is Haiti.

There's the terrible moral dilemma forced on a reluctant world by the civil war in what once was Yugoslavia. Everyone knows that it has to be stopped, and no one knows how to do it. The fighting there, with the savage ethnic murders and the concentration camps, represents the opposite of the seasonal message of peace and good cheer. Christmas will be celebrated in besieged Bosnian mountain towns as an affirmation of hope and faith that there are other spirits at work in this world than those driving the Balkans' tribal persecutions.

Because this time of year is a happy one for most Americans, it is also a time to reflect on those for whom it is less happy and to ask how they could be rescued -- and by whom.