ASK any 10 experts to comment on the peripatetic Texan now serving as America's top diplomat and nine are likely to give you the same response: James Baker III is a shrewd negotiator who is long on tactical skill and short on strategic vision.
Ask them whether his talents have been an asset or liability during his three eventful years as secretary of state and the consensus weakens.
Mr. Baker's partisans, who seem to far outnumber his detractors, say his tactical flexibility is ideal for an era in which flux has replaced fixity in the international system. 'Vision' questioned
"It's true that he does not have a grand vision of how the world should operate, but the changes have been so rapid that every grand vision has been overtaken by events," says University of Colorado diplomatic historian Robert Schultzinger. "Ironically, there's probably a virtue in being able to react tactically as well as he has."
Baker's critics, however, say his unquestioned political skills have become a substitute for a real foreign policy: While Baker's attention to detail has paid off, for example, in the Middle East, they say it has diverted his attention from other issues - including relations with Japan - that bear more heavily on the establishment of a stable post-cold-war international order.
"It is ... a requirement of statecraft to have a vision of the world," the New Republic wrote in a recent editorial broadside against Baker and President Bush. "It is an administration of fixers, when we need builders."
The man who has presided over the biggest transition in American foreign policy since the early cold-war years has benefited from events breaking right. While his predecessors labored to contain communism, Baker has watched it collapse.
But shaping that transition to American interests and avoiding major mistakes through a period of sweeping and unpredictable change has required "a combination of being lucky and being good at the same time," says a State Department source who has watched Baker up close.
Recognizing that German reunification was inevitable and that a unified Germany inside NATO was far preferable to having a demilitarized Germany outside NATO, Baker became the first alliance leader to throw his weight behind unification. The effect was to help head off a divisive debate that could have weakened both NATO and the European Community (EC).
"No one thought it was possible to get the Sovet Union to agree to a unified Germany in NATO," says the official. "Baker saw the opportunity, jumped on it, and helped manage the transition in Europe to a smooth conclusion. In the process he built credits with Germany that will be good for years to come." Criticism rebuffed
Department officials also chafe at the charge that Baker's foreign policy lacks vision. While a few acknowledge that he did not instantly grasp the historical significance of communism's demise, they say Baker has since laid out a comprehensive vision of the "architecture" of post-cold-war Europe, elaborated in two major speeches given in Berlin.
On a global scale, they add, Baker has defined a "trialogue" - the United States, Japan, and the EC - as the diplomatic focal point of the post-cold-war era.
The region that has showcased Baker's strengths as secretary of state has been the Middle East.
His talent for personal persuasion was crucial in helping round out the coalition that expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
After the Gulf war, it was Baker's persistence and sheer force of character that finally convinced the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict to sit down at the bargaining table.
"Baker would deserve [a Nobel peace prize] for his negotiation skill, sticking power, energy, and so forth - though, in the end, it is the president's commitment to it that has made the peace process credible," says former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
But if Middle East policy has highlighted Baker's strengths, it has also thrown into sharp relief the shortcomings of a management style that, as many commentators have noted, has left the department off guard at crucial moments.
At the root of the problem is Baker's near-total reliance on a small group of advisers - including the head of the department's policy planning staff, Dennis Ross - who are largely unknown outside the Washington Beltway.
Though highly regarded as policy analysts, Mr. Ross and four others who comprise Baker's inner circle are short on the kind of on-the-ground experience that, for example, might have helped Baker anticipate the rebellion of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites at the end of the Gulf war.
The major problem is that with so few advisers, with so many demands on their time, and with so little access by knowledgeable advisers outside the Baker circle, issues can only be dealt with one at a time.
Absorbed by events in Europe, for example, Baker missed the gathering crisis in the Gulf in the summer of 1990. Even now, say department sources, potentially serious issues such as the major arms buildup under way in Iran have been subordinated to more immediate problems.
"The problem is that there's no one in a position at the Baker-circle level to focus on the implications of events," says the department source. "There's no one to anticipate a problem so that we know how to deal with it when it comes up."
"It's like a toggle switch," continues the source - referring to Ross, who is Baker's main adviser on Europe and the Middle East. "Dennis has to go back and forth between the two most important issues.
"The problem is you can't do either issue on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday basis."
"Ironically, there are people around Baker who have the big picture," says the official. "What they don't have is enough hours in the day."
Despite such lapses at the management level, on a personal level Baker remains one of the most highly regarded US secretaries of state in years.
Baker's greatest asset may be the authority that derives from his close relationship with his old Texas friend, George Bush.
His credibility has also been enhanced by the absence of the kind of open ideological warfare that pitted Dr. Brzezinski against Secretary of State Cyrus Vance during the Carter administration.
The former White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary has also been careful to work closely with Congress. The result, says a former senior state department official, has been a "respectful relationship on both sides" that, with the exception of China policy, has minimized serious clashes.
Analysts also note Baker's sure instinct for publicity and for avoiding what plays badly in the press.
"He's someone who keeps the focus on himself," notes the former official. "It's hard to remember a time when the rest of the State Department was so inconspicuous."
Eager to distance himself from what he expected would be a public relations disaster - which it was - Baker chose not to accompany President Bush on his trip to Japan in January, according to State Department sources.
Even in his dealing with the Middle East, Baker has exercised caution, lowering expectations and keeping his own profile as low as possible. "Even now, if the peace process doesn't work, it's the parties who will get blamed, not James Baker," says Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He's very careful to protect himself."
Just why he waded into such a quixotic issue has to do largely with the outcome of the Gulf war. Confident of the heightened prestige of the US and his own ability to convince the opposing parties to sit down together, he plunged into the issue that has absorbed more of his time since than any other.
"It has appeal because it's the classic diplomatic challenge that only an American secretary of state can take on," says one senior administration source who has worked closely with Baker. "He was personally determined to seize the opportunity. It was not something he was dragged into kicking and screaming."
"The peace process is a snake pit for American involvement," adds Dr. Indyk. "That might argue for staying away, but for Baker it was like Mt. Everest for the best climber in the world."
After three years, most diplomatic analysts are prepared to acknowledge that Baker has been one of the most successful of post-World War II secretaries of state.
"Whatever the man's style, his accomplishments in diplomatic terms have been remarkable," says the admiring former department official. Whether that reputation holds may largely depend on the outcome of two events: political change in the former Soviet Union and Middle East peace talks.
"If things improve in Russia," he'll get the credit," says Professor Schultzinger.
"But if things turn out badly, if there's a coup dtat, people will say he could have done more to prevent it. And if the Israelis feel too pressured and quit the peace process, people will say Baker did it wrong."