The winner of the Henry Hill Stand-Up Guy Award is Secretary of State James Baker III. The award, named for the mobster in the movie "Goodfellas" who ratted on his friends, goes to Baker for first praising his ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, and then suggesting that her mistakes were, if not her own, than certainly not his. James Baker, you're no stand-up guy.

Baker did his version of Henry Hill on last Sunday's "Meet the Press." He was asked about Glaspie's July 27 audience with Saddam Hussein. This has become a storied event, much studied and much commented on -- especially since the always accommodating Iraqis leaked a transcript. In their version of reality (not denied by the State Department), Glaspie was a toadying emissary who suggested the United States was blissfully unconcerned about the troops Iraq was massing on the Kuwaiti border. "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts . . ." Glaspie reportedly said. "President Bush is not going to declare an economic war against Iraq." So said our ambassador.

When asked to explain how the American ambassador could seem indifferent about an event that has since taken her country to the brink of war, Baker dismissed all such inquiries as "retrospective scapegoating." What this means is not clear since the search for truth -- how did U.S. policy contribute to the crisis in the Persian Gulf? -- is not the same as assigning false blame. After all, the goat upon which the ancient Israelites placed all their sins was as innocent as any other. But someone in the Bush administration -- and not just Glaspie -- sure was guilty of misreading Saddam Hussein.

Having explained nothing, Baker then did his Henry Hill routine. He said he would not tolerate criticism of Glaspie and others at the State Department. As if to prove that the word "frankly" often precedes an insincere statement, Baker said, "Frankly" they are "some very fine career public servants." A beat later, Baker sent them to sleep with the fishes. Referring to instructions cabled Glaspie in Baghdad, he said, "there are probably 312,000 or so cables that go out under my name. . . ." Ciao, April.

That was the sort of performance that earns Baker high praise in Washington. The man cannot be pinned down. Never in his long career has he been found in the vicinity of a mistake. Somehow, he emerged from the smarmy Bush presidential campaign, which he had managed, as something of a statesmen while his media consultant, Roger Ailes, has been pilloried ever since.

Baker clearly feels that U.S. policy toward Iraq is no place to break the pattern. On "Meet the Press," he transformed what had been administration missteps into three small but oh-so-brilliant "signals" to Saddam Hussein to watch his step. In reality, though, those "signals" sent no such message. The first of those cited by Baker -- export controls -- was really an administration effort to derail much more punitive economic sanctions working through Congress. The other so-called signals, similar in nature, were also turned into imaginary foreign policy coups.

Baker's performance was both slippery and disingenuous. Glaspie's statements to Hussein were appalling, but she clearly did not make them on her own. An ambassador meeting with a head of state on the eve of a war is likely to have been cabled specific instructions from the secretary of state. To characterize that cable as just more boilerplate that goes out under the secretary's signature is simply ducking responsibility. War was looming in the Middle East. Either Baker read the cable or he didn't. Either way, he goofed.

In almost every way possible, Baker has distanced himself from his own administration's Gulf policy. During August, he was nowhere in sight, vacationing in Wyoming, so it is said, but vacationing with a thoroughness unique for a secretary of state during a time of international crisis. Maybe that was his way of showing disagreement with Bush's policy. Whatever the case, though, Baker remains secretary of state, answerable to Congress for the foreign policy of the United States.

It may be too early for Congress to hold full-scale hearings on how, almost overnight, an American army wound up in the Arabian desert, waiting for war. But eventually those hearings must be held. It's not scapegoating to ask what so commended Saddam Hussein to the Bush administration. A nation on the verge of war has a right to know how it got there.