WASHINGTON ..... — WASHINGTON -- President Bush's aid package for the former Soviet Union may come too late to counter the widespread impression that his administration is following, rather than leading, the drive to cement free-market democracy there.
The plan, to be unveiled tomorrow, comes only after prodding from former President Richard M. Nixon, who in a widely publicized memo derided aid efforts so far as "pathetically inadequate." The cause also has been pressed forcefully by such key senators as Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, and Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, and even by Mr. Bush's ambassador to Moscow, Robert S. Strauss.
The administration's caution could haunt the president in the fall, when he is expected to play up his own foreign-policy credentials in contrast to those of a far less experienced Democratic nominee.
"I hope it's not too late in terms of the president getting the appropriate credit," said James R. Schlesinger, a high official in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations.
As now scheduled, the president's announcement tomorrow will coincide with a major foreign-policy address by the presumed Democratic front-runner, Bill Clinton, who already has said he favors substantial aid to the former Soviet republics.
Administration officials dispute criticism that Mr. Bush is a Johnny-come-lately to the issue. They say the plan has been in the works for months and that administration officials have been speaking of the need for major aid since last September.
"It's not something one wants to rush into and get wrong," one official said.
The plan includes a U.S. contribution to a $5 billion to $6 billion stabilization fund for the ruble and a major push for a $12 billion infusion into the International Monetary Fund's coffers.
The money for the IMF would enable the development agency to lend large sums to Russia and the other republics without depriving other desperately struggling economies, particularly in the Third World.
But a senior official acknowledged being "a little slow off the mark" and said the administration "has not done a good job of articulating what needs to be done."
The reasons involved both policy and politics. Officials tended to react to events in the former Soviet Union as they unfolded, the official said.
And some top officials felt a residual distrust of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin that has been replaced only relatively recently by the near-unanimous conviction that he offers the best hope among the leaders there.
Administration officials also point to the primary election campaign by Patrick J. Buchanan, who broadcast an "America First" message that appeared, for a time, to resonate among voters.
"There was no good time, during the primaries, to start talking about Soviet aid proposals," the senior official said.
Much of this week's proposal contains elements already announced by Mr. Bush, including $620 million worth of additional humanitarian aid. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady have also pushed, in congressional testimony, for an increase for the IMF.
But congressional officials charge that given the political sensitivity of the IMF increase, mere verbal support is not enough.
Administration officials say that announcement of a ruble stabilization fund would have been pointless earlier, when, as one put it, "we had no idea what the [former Soviet Union] was going to look like."
Stephen Sestanovitch, director of Russian and Eurasian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, agreed.
"The risks involved in offering to support the ruble are great as it is," he said, "and would have been much greater if it were done in January." A premature move, he said, could have imperiled both Western money and political consensus.
"It was important politically and economically for the Russian government to begin standing on its own feet."
Timing of the president's action also was driven by the legislative calendar. Officials want to clear the decks of debate over foreign aid in general, which was entangled for weeks in a dispute over loan guarantees for Israel, before launching the separate Soviet aid effort.
When the Soviet effort starts, the administration will try to enlist bipartisan congressional leadership. The leaders are invited to the president's announcement tomorrow.
The White House aim is to push for an authorization bill that lays out the policy on aid. No effort to find the actual dollars will be made until that passes.
Congressional officials say the prospects for passage, particularly in the House, are far from certain.
For example, Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate foreign aid appropriations panel, has insisted that strong support from the president as well as GOP support within his own committee are necessary to gain his backing for an IMF increase.
"The whole thing depends on the president coming out forcefully . . . and leadership on both sides of the aisle," said a well-placed congressional official.
If Mr. Bush can pull that off, this official said, he can recoup the chance to demonstrate his own foreign-policy leadership.