WASHINGTON — MAYBE it is George Bush's specialty, but Bill Clinton still has harsh words to say about the president's foreign policies.
In a time of great world change, the White House has been "reactive, rudderless and erratic," the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination charged this week.
Stripped of charged language, however, Gov. Clinton's differences with President Bush aren't nearly as pronounced on foreign affairs as they are on domestic ones. The Arkansas governor comes across as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat on foreign policy issues, cut from the same cloth as the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, and Senator Nunn's House counterpart, Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin.
"It's not like Clinton is horrendously different from Bush on this stuff," says a Senate aide who's worked with Clinton staff on policy development.
In what was billed as a major foreign policy speech in New York on Wednesday, Governor Clinton's primary target was administration cautiousness on the issue of aid to Russia.
He offered a number of specific remedies that were similar to proposals in the administration's new Russian aid package, such as a $1 billion United States contribution to a $6 billion ruble stabilization fund. Clinton said he welcomed the fact that Bush was finally putting forward a plan for assistance to the Russians.
"I'd really like it if I could have as much influence on his domestic policy," Clinton said in his speech to the New York Foreign Policy Association.
As an alternative to the "rudderless" Bush approach to a new world vision, Clinton offered American leadership "to reinforce the powerful global movement toward democracy and market economics" - a proposal that is not exactly out of the mainstream.
He did not call for a dramatically lessened US role in Europe, as some Democrats have done. In what was probably an unspoken threat to Saddam Hussein, Clinton reemphasized that he would use military force if US policy warranted.
Clinton does talk about US economic performance as a foreign policy and national security problem. But he is not an isolationist, and has not hammered on US trade issues as such former Democratic candidates as Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska did.
There are differences with the White House on some specific foreign issues.
Clinton has accused the administration of tilting against Israel in the current Middle East peace talks, and complains of US "nurturing ties to Syria's despotic regime."
In an apparent slap at Bush efforts to continue Most Favored Nation trade status for Beijing, Clinton complains of the president coddling aging Chinese rulers.
And Clinton has called for Germany and Japan to be made permanent members of the UN Security Council, giving them international political clout more commensurate with their economic standing.
"That's an innovative idea," notes Barry Blechman of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a security think-tank. "If the UN is more reflective of world power it would be able to act more effectively as a true multinational security force."
In the end, candidate Clinton may not want to pick too much of a foreign policy fight, rhetorical or otherwise, with the sitting President. Right now, "you don't want foreign policy to be an issue," says another think-tank analyst who has advised the Clinton campaign.