AS Secretary of State James Baker III winds up a jampacked trip to Asia with President Bush, subterranean grumblings are becoming louder in the Washington foreign affairs establishment. Mr. Baker will return to his seventh-floor perch at the State Department amid growing criticism about how he is handling his new job. Professionals in and outside the government are voicing these concerns:
While Baker has spent much time on diplomatic style - flying off to 14 NATO capitals for get-acquainted meetings, for instance - he has had a slow start on the substance of foreign policy issues, including peace efforts in Central America, missile modernization in West Germany, Iran's threat against novelist Salman Rushdie, and the Middle East.
He has not announced key appointments at the State Department, including assistant secretaries for the European, Asian, and other regional bureaus. And a whole host of appointments, including that of Lawrence Eagleburger as deputy secretary of state, have yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
Following his pattern at Treasury, Baker is surrounding himself and operating with a small coterie of trusted aides, ignoring senior professionals and failing to provide leadership of the Foreign Service bureaucracy.
Not all State Department officials fault the secretary's early journey to Europe. It was important, many say, to touch base with the NATO allies just as the President was getting ready to make his first major journey overseas to Japan, China, and South Korea. Baker's cordial sessions with European leaders and deft handling of a sensitive arms issue with Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany are acknowledged.
But it is widely felt that Baker is functioning more on the basis of process than substance, and is oriented more toward political than diplomatic considerations. He has, for instance, spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill, courting legislators in anticipation of foreign policy battles ahead instead of focusing on the issues.
As a result, many administration officials say, much time has been wasted, even while the Soviets are conspicuously conducting an assertive foreign policy in the Middle East and other areas of the globe. ``We're behind in many parts of the world,'' a key US official says, ``and will be thrashing about to form positions.''
Informed insiders say aides in Baker's inner circle are already overworked, trying to learn foreign affairs and the State Department operation even while making decisions and beginning policy reviews. The amount of diplomatic traffic appears to have surprised them.
``These guys are learning very quickly that State isn't Treasury,'' a senior US official says. ``The paper is coming at them from nine different directions at once, and it's all `immediate action.' Sure the savings-and-loan crisis needed to be solved at Treasury, but not right now, as many of these issues demand.''
Comments a well-placed Washington insider: ``In the White House, Baker was sheltered by the President. In Treasury, he had a clearly bounded area of responsibility. Now, he's representing the US before the world and is subject to shots from all sides. Baker is a very smart fellow and he'll adapt. The question is how many stitches get missed in the process.''
During his frenetic swing through Europe, Baker ran into unforeseen problems. German Chancellor Kohl, for instance, anticipating US pressure to commit West Germany to modernizing NATO's aging Lance short-range nuclear missile, gave an interview to the Financial Times on the eve of the secretary's visit. Kohl said a decision was not needed before 1990 or '91, although the US would like a tentative decision this year.
The US-German disagreement drew fire in Washington. Former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird said Baker had been ill advised to travel to Europe before his team was in place and could assess the Lance policy.
One official at State suggests that, while Baker came back from Europe with a new policy perspective on key NATO modernization issues, ``he didn't have a firm policy grasp of the issue before he went out.''
In the midst of the European trip, too, Baker was embarrassed by press stories in Washington about his bank-stock holdings. Acutely sensitive to any charge of impropriety, the secretary announced that he would quickly sell them off, at a big tax cost.
Baker has also gotten caught on a couple of other foreign policy issues. In Central America the foreign ministers, signaling that they were not going to wait for the secretary to launch a new US approach, signed on to a framework peace agreement with Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. Baker had met with two of them only shortly before.
Cries of concern are also coming from the Pentagon. Gen. Fred Woerner, commander of US forces in Latin America, stated in Panama recently that the administration was unable to deal with the situation in Panama because of a ``vacuum'' in Washington in the absence of appointment of an assistant secretary to head up the Latin America bureau. Until the position is filled and debate can begin, he said, there was little hope of ``an articulated policy.''
Washington's handling of the crisis over Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's threat against Salman Rushdie, the author of ``The Satanic Verses,'' and his British and American publishers has also aroused criticism. President Bush finally condemned the Rushdie threats and praised the strong European response. But, according to informed Washington sources, he did so in response to requests for action made directly to the White House rather than to a recommendation from Baker.
Asked about the crisis last week in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Baker said he was not aware of consultations with allies and had not ordered discussions of the issue. Longtime diplomatic hands were appalled.
``When the head of a government takes a contract out on numbers of Americans, you don't have to wait for policy studies...,'' says a highly experienced former US diplomat. The US must react to threats of international terrorism, he adds.
It is Baker's newness and the inexperience of the circle around him that accounted for the initial tepid reaction, says the Middle East specialist. ``This reinforces the new people's sense of isolation and paranoia about the career people - they have not formed the relationships to be able to reach out and start tapping the professionals,'' he says.
A major organizational change at State causing consternation is that the assistant secretaries, who head up the geographical bureaus, will work through the deputy and under secretaries, who are Baker's close aides. Previously the assistant secretaries met directly with the secretary of state, providing him with their thinking as well as receiving orders from him.
``Baker has layered the system,'' says one official. ``The assistant secretaries are being downgraded and have less authority. ... It looks as if Baker wants to limit his portfolio to a handful of issues and let close associates run things.''
Baker continues to be admired within the department for his political skills, demonstrated during his recent European trip. And he is not blamed by everyone for the Central Americans' decision not to wait for a US initiative. ``That kind of trouble comes with the territory,'' one official says.
But it is clear that many professionals at State are waiting for Baker to engage the Foreign Service bureaucracy, give it direction, and use the kind of expertise it can offer on the arcane and demanding decisions he must take daily.