WASHINGTON — LIKE a tightly wound clock that can run on its own, the State Department will tick along just fine for a time without James Baker III.
"It will be a different department for a while without him. But if some dramatic event happens Baker will be there at the president's side anyway," says Peter Rodman, a former director of the State Department's policy planning staff. "If there is no crisis, the people at State can handle it. It won't create such a vacuum if Baker is gone."
According to news reports, Mr. Baker will step down as secretary of state to run President Bush's reelection campaign, leaving the department's No. 2 official, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, in charge. Mr. Eagleburger is expected to serve as a caretaker until after the November election, when Baker would presumably return if Bush is reelected.
With Baker absent, the State Department would not be reshaping American foreign policy, but "merely taking care of the details of business," notes one department source.
But even if no policy changes are in store, the relinquishment of Baker's tight control could lead to a rapid decentralization of power within the huge Foggy Bottom bureaucracy.
"After Baker leaves, I think you'll see a real scramble for influence with everyone trying to get a piece of the action," says the State Department official. "It's going to be very much a sixth-floor foreign policy and not a seventh-floor foreign policy."
(The secretary of state sits on the seventh floor and various assistant secretaries have offices one floor below.)
Although not a Bush confidant like Baker, Eagleburger would have access to the White House through his close friend and former business partner, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft.
His accession would be welcomed by many State Department careerists who resented Baker's near-total reliance on a small group of noncareer managers and policy advisors.
During 30 years in the foreign service, Eagleburger rose through the ranks, eventually becoming assistant secretary of state for European affairs and undersecretary for political affairs, both during the Reagan administration.
A former ambassador to Yugoslavia, he has taken a lead role under Baker in managing the United States's response to the conflict now raging among the former Yugoslav republics.
Eagleburger has also been point man for the department in its effort to convince Congress to approve a multibillion-dollar aid package for the former Soviet republics.
Baker leaves the department at a time when it is occupied with a range of important but unglamorous issues - from the trade negotiations to ethnic conflicts in the former USSR - that will be kept out of the spotlight during the presidential campaign.
"All the issues that are likely to come up [between now and the election] are losers" in a domestic political sense, says the department official. "For the most part, foreign policy will be put into a holding pattern except when things need some kind of push."
Thanks to recent elections in Israel, the most visible issue on the US foreign policy agenda, the Middle East peace process, is not likely to be affected by Baker's absence.
Baker made numerous trips to the region to get Arab-Israeli peace talks started in the aftermath of the Gulf war. The key to what many regard as his most notable achievement was the energy Baker brought to the task and the personal prestige he has enjoyed because of his close relationship with President Bush.
With Israel now in the hands of a more accommodating Labor government headed by Yitzhak Rabin, however, the peace process is beginning to take on a life of its own.
"It's now a different kind of negotiation that doesn't require the secretary of state to knock heads together," says Mr. Rodman, who also served as a senior advisor on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration. "For a considerable period, a kind of facilitator's role can be played by Eagleburger."
Baker is expected to delay his departure until after Mr. Rabin visits the US in early August. If Bush is reelected and Baker reappointed, he would have to go through the Senate confirmation process again.
In his nearly four years on the job, Baker has earned a reputation as one of the more effective postwar secretaries of state.
He is credited with helping to shape the sweeping changes that accompanied the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe to America's interests.
But Baker's critics charge that he is a better tactician than strategist, and that his closed management style left him unprepared for Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.