Secretary of State James A. Baker III departs Saturday for the Middle East and Europe on a mission that appears to suit this most political of recent secretaries of state. His goal is to shore up the anti-Iraq coalition -- checking for real and potential backsliding among allies, building cooperation among the various military forces, and testing the resolve of the alliance to go to war if necessary.

The trip plays to Baker's strengths as a tactician who anticipates problems and moves quickly to solve them. It comes as the drumbeat of war has grown ominously over the past week, increasing tension at home and abroad. With the crisis

moving into what appears to be a criti- cal new phase, Baker realizes that the stakes are high, and the Persian Gulf could be the undoing of the presidency of his old friend George Bush.

In his first year and a half as the nation's chief diplomat and unrivaled presidential peer, Baker had demonstrated that he, like Bush, has remained deeply pragmatic and non-ideological, sensitive to political trends at home and abroad, and reliant on a cadre of trusted advisers outside the foreign service.

But the events in the Persian Gulf have tested all these traits in a crisis atmosphere that did not exist before, providing some fresh insights on the way U.S. foreign policy is being made in the Bush presidency and into the very real consequences of the way Baker does his job.

Baker endorsed the idea of dispatching a huge American military force to defend Saudi Arabia in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Although that initial objective has been achieved, neither Baker nor Bush initially anticipated the dilemma posed for the United States by the continuing standoff.

Since early August, Baker has managed the diplomatic response to the crisis. His efforts, particularly his success in drawing the Soviet Union into the global anti-Iraq alliance, have won praise. But he has found more troublesome the job of reconciling seemingly inconsistent policy justifications to a questioning Congress, U.S. public, and global audience.

More than two dozen officials were interviewed for this article, most of whom asked to remain anonymous. Many said they have been struck by Baker's willingness to reverse or modify a host of long-standing foreign policy tenets of the United States, in pursuit of an immediate goal, with potential consequences that may not be clear until long after the gulf crisis has abated. "He thinks . . . 'I've got to work on this problem today,' " said a high-ranking administration official. " 'I'll look at tomorrow and the next week, but I'm not going to be paralyzed by them.' "

In his pragmatic effort to build alliances against Saddam Hussein, Baker has played a leading role as Bush's point man in setting aside a years-long attempt to isolate the brutal government of Syria, in inviting the Soviet Union into a Middle East policy partnership that Washington had long avoided, and in entrusting the United Nations with a newly dominant role in U.S. policy considerations.

He has asked Congress for large new arms sales to Saudi Arabia and forgiveness of Egypt's military debt, and has defended two U.S. votes against Israel in the U.N. Security Council -- all decisions that would not have come so quickly or so easily but for the need to unite the world against Saddam.

In dealing with this crisis, Baker has relied on skills drawn from more than a decade of experience in domestic politics as White House chief of staff, secretary of the Treasury, campaign manager for presidents Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bush, and as a Houston lawyer -- roles in which he earned a reputation for caution and calculated risks.

Officials stressed that Bush has remained at the center of the crisis decision-making, while other advisers have played critically important roles, including national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who serves as a close personal counselor to the president, and the team of Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have managed the enormous military problems.

But Baker also enjoys a personal relationship with Bush that is unparalleled among the president's advisers. Those who know them describe it as not without a tinge of rivalry and based on such deep trust that Baker can be bluntly honest with his boss in private. Baker understands that Bush sees himself as an experienced diplomat. In some cases, such as the Chinese crisis last year, Baker has been careful to defer to a president who often is described as his own desk officer on foreign policy matters.

Before the invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, the world had been spinning the administration's way, as communist regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe and democracy flourished. The most severe criticism was that Bush and Baker were not keeping up with the fast pace of change. But Baker quickly recognized that Iraq's invasion and the threatened war on the Arabian peninsula could turn all that around, costing thousands of lives and disrupting the world economy.

The decision to launch the largest military deployment since the Vietnam War was made with almost no debate among Bush's senior advisers, including Baker, about the problems of a protracted standoff, according to participants.

That initial decision was driven largely by fears that Iraqi troops would keep going from Kuwait to capture Saudi oil fields. "Contrary to some news reports," Baker said in a recent interview, "I never did have reservations about the importance of sending forces, particularly after we saw the intelligence of the first few days showing the tremendous buildup" of Iraqi forces.

Baker worried, along with others at the Aug. 4 Camp David meeting where the deployment was discussed, about the risk that the first American troops arriving in Saudi Arabia could be "slaughtered" in an Iraqi attack. This concern, which close associates said dominated Baker's thinking for the first 10 days or so of the crisis, overcame any hesitation about the size of the force. "When we started putting forces in there, those guys were very vulnerable," said one senior official familiar with the discussion. "There was no way to protect them except to get the rest of the forces in."

After Bush gave the order for the deployment, Baker called Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to inform him before the public announcement was made. The Soviets were not pleased.

From the time the crisis began, Baker had been in almost constant contact with Shevardnadze. At the time of the invasion, Baker was in Asia. Despite his rush to return to Washington, he stopped in Moscow. When Baker and his policy planning director, Dennis Ross, met with the Soviet foreign minister there on Aug. 3, they learned that Shevardnadze had resisted the Arabist sentiments of his own foreign ministry and that the Soviets would join in an arms embargo and condemnation of Iraq.

In the statement issued at the airport as Baker departed, however, the Soviets declined to include language sought by the United States threatening to take "additional steps" if Saddam did not retreat.

Soviet anxiety over possible military action, and a massive American deployment not far from their own borders, quickly became a recurrent theme in the early days of the crisis. In a State Department meeting shortly after the deployment decision, Baker asked the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, how King Fahd would view a Soviet presence in the multinational force. Bandar went into another room and called the king; the answer came back that he would not mind.

But the Soviets, traumatized by the disaster of their decade-long Afghanistan deployment, declined.

Baker, ever the skillful tactician, did not push. He and Shevardnadze had developed a strong personal relationship during the past year of frequent meetings. Baker was learning that he could make deals with Moscow but that he had to give something in return. The opportunity to do so in the gulf crisis came in the context of the United Nations.

During the first weeks of the crisis, Baker had surprised many other world leaders when he said in a television interview that the United States would proceed with "interdiction" of Iraqi commerce at sea to enforce the U.N.-authorized economic embargo against Iraq. Reaction to his apparent suggestion that the United States would go it alone was swift and negative from other members of the Security Council. A long series of telephone calls between Shevardnadze and Baker, vacationing in Wyoming, led to approval of a new Security Council resolution Aug. 24 on the use of naval force, the language of which was significantly modified to win Soviet approval.

This episode and others brought home to Baker the degree to which the Soviet leadership regards the United Nations, long considered hostile to U.S. interests, as a vital forum. Moreover, Soviet cooperation meant that the prospect of a veto among the five permanent members of the Security Council was reduced.

"I think he approached the United Nations in a somewhat leery way, that it's bound to turn on you sooner or later," said a State Department official, referring to Baker. "But if it works, climb in and drive it. Now he's not quite sure he can stop it."

Baker's bargaining has had important consequences for American policy; a military move against Saddam will now almost certainly require Soviet cooperation in the Security Council. Already, the United States has made concessions to Soviet demands that the Security Council's moribund Military Staff Committee be reactivated.

More deals were forged during the hastily arranged Sept. 9 summit between Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Helsinki. As Baker and Shevardnadze began working on a joint statement for the two leaders, Shevardnadze wanted to include a reference to an international conference on the Middle East. Moscow had advocated such a conference long before the gulf crisis, and Washington had resisted, in part out of reluctance to give the Soviets anything approaching an equal role in the region.

Baker refused, saying such a meeting would reward Saddam for his aggression. But he said he was amenable to some language reflecting a role for both superpowers in the overall Middle East peace process. The two sides worked out a compromise on humanitarian aid shipments, which Gorbachev had sought because he feared that the prospect of starving children in Iraq would be used by Saddam to undercut the alliance.

Baker then reinserted the language about "additional steps" to be taken if Iraq did not pull out of Kuwait -- the same language the Soviets had rejected five weeks earlier in Moscow. This time, Shevardnadze did not object, and the two presidents approved the statement with only minor changes.

The Helsinki statement was the kind of bargain Baker likes to make. He got the language he wanted, but he gave Shevardnadze and Gorbachev a major concession.

"A card that was played like that!" marveled one U.S. official at the way the old policy was tossed aside. Privately, Baker is scornful of those who had clung to the earlier policy, officials said. "That's screwy that you're going to keep the Soviets out of the Middle East," said one administration official, describing Baker's view. "Look how we have been able to work with the Soviets to our advantage."

A similar calculation was made in Baker's moves to enlist Syria in the anti-Saddam effort. The United States had long sought to isolate Damascus because of its support for terrorism. Baker's predecessor, George P. Shultz, had written off the Syrians for what he charged was their sabotage of a U.S.-sponsored peace plan for Lebanon after the Israeli invasion there in 1982.

Baker, officials said, believed Shultz's policy amounted to a counterproductive "vendetta" in light of developments in the gulf and the need to enlist all countries bordering Iraq into the alliance. Baker believed that the United States and Syria had a "joint interest" in pushing Saddam out of Kuwait, an official said, and "the fact that we've got other problems {with Damascus} shouldn't prevent us from pursuing that one interest."

Officials said that Bush, who had been in contact with Syrian leader Hafez Assad several times, agreed. When Baker considered meeting Syria's foreign minister in a third country, they said, he was urged by Bush to go directly to Damascus. Realizing that Israel would worry about such a visit, Baker took pains to give Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy advance notice of his plans.

Although the gulf crisis is far less predictable than anything else he has faced as secretary of state, Baker's method has been similar to his earlier efforts to keep a unified Germany in the Western alliance, to maneuver Israel into talks with the Palestinians and to end the contra war and bring on elections in Nicaragua.

"Baker is a very quick calculator of political costs," said an official who has worked closely with him. "This has been the quality that distinguishes his performance on gulf issues. In real Baker fashion, he very quickly saw this could go very wrong. He saw it could lead to many getting killed. He saw we were vulnerable if it starts too soon. He saw the possibility the Europeans could retreat. He saw the prospect the Soviets could block the United Nations resolutions. He saw the things that could isolate us. He saw that you could have the president become 'Carterized.' He saw that in a flash."

"He saw that getting the Soviets was crucial to the solidarity of the alliance. It was like, you can't win the election without getting the biggest state, California. You had to square them early. And that's what he did."

David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state and now professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University, compared Baker's style to that of Edmund Muskie, the former Maine senator who served briefly as Jimmy Carter's secretary of state. "Muskie used to say to us, 'This is a politician's job.' It is just politics on a wider arena than the domestic scene."

But, Newsom said, Baker has risked political fallout at home when necessary for his larger goal, as with his pressure on Israel. "He looks at individual issues with a keen sense of the domestic aspect, but he is not ruled by it," Newsom said. The risk, he added, "is that when you're operating with a relatively small group concentrating on a limited number of issues at a time, you may not be fully prepared for the sudden eruption of other issues. The downside is you may not always look ahead at the next move or have a completely coherent idea of what the world is going to be like when you get through putting the small pieces together."

Such questions about management style have persisted since Baker became secretary of state.

Although Baker had been told last spring by some of his own advisers of Iraq's increasingly belligerent behavior, he was totally absorbed in German unification and U.S.-Soviet relations. He and Bush had inherited a policy of trying to work with Saddam, and they never changed it, despite signs of trouble. One member of Baker's inner circle said that most major shifts on foreign policy, such as the recent turnabout on Cambodia, have come about because Baker went directly to Bush.

This time, Baker never took it to the president.

Baker privately acknowledges that he did not focus on Iraq, although he makes no apologies for concentrating on Germany and the Soviets, officials said, and believes that even if he had gone to Bush demanding a hard line against Saddam, it would not have deterred the Kuwait invasion.

He has been particularly sensitive to the criticism directed at him for the soothing suggestion made by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, in a meeting with Saddam on July 25, that the United States wanted better relations. Baker has acknowledged that the policy was to work with Saddam but officials said he believes that Glaspie did not have instructions to use the words she did. However, he also has said that with perfect hindsight, he would have done some things differently.

When a large audience of congressmen complained to Bush at a White House meeting in August that he had failed to adequately explain the gulf deployments to the public and not done enough to seek financial aid from other countries, Baker returned to his State Department office with "all his antenna . . . up like crazy," recalled an official.

Officials both in and out of Baker's entourage, acknowledge that they have struggled to shape a consistent message to the American public and to the global constituencies. By many accounts, Baker realized the problem but discovered it was not as simple as the one-theme-a-day campaigns he used to manage.

The messages from the administration have been a zig-zag of confusion. One week Saddam Hussein was compared to Hitler, then Bush dropped the analogy because aides said it was too personal, then weeks later it was revived. The administration long tried to play down the plight of Iraq's American hostages, then this week suddenly highlighted it. At the outset, Bush said oil and economic interests were at stake, a justification that has now all but disappeared.

The free flow of oil has long been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the gulf. But Baker sensed it was not going over well among the American people; separately, polls were showing the same thing. Baker felt, an official said, that "it was important and remains important that people not see this as a battle over oil." Bush subsequently shifted his emphasis. When heckled at a speech recently, Bush shot back: "The fight isn't about oil; the fight is about naked aggression that will not stand."

In the interview, Baker was asked what in the gulf conflict he believes is worth American soldiers giving their lives.

Choosing his words carefully, he responded, "Every life is precious -- every single one. Therefore I don't think we ought to be saying that anything really justifies the deaths of American servicemen. Preserving freedom, preserving democracy, preserving the principles that we stand for are things that in the past American presidents have considered important enough to deploy our forces for, and when you commit forces you always run the risk of death . . . . One very important principle is at stake here: that is that unprovoked aggression should not be allowed to succeed."

Asked if energy supplies were worth dying for, Baker said, "If you're going to get me to say that low gasoline prices are worth American lives, it's not something I'm going to say."

Asked if restoring the "legitimate government" of Kuwait was worth dying for, Baker said, "The real principles that are at stake here is that unprovoked aggression cannot be permitted to be the norm of a new world order."

The most troublesome inconsistency in the administration's presentation, however, goes back to the military deployment and the gap between Bush's political goals -- that the invasion of Kuwait "will not stand" -- and the "wholly defensive" military mission he initially launched. Baker believed, officials said, that Bush had left wide open the critical question of whether the United States would go to war to oust Saddam from Kuwait. He also saw that the administration had failed to address how, and whether, it would try to contain Saddam's aggressive desires once the current crisis was over.

In congressional testimony Sept. 4, Baker tried to fill the gaps, suggesting the creation of new "regional security structures" in the gulf. Responding to a question, he described it as containing Saddam in much the same way that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had contained communism after World War II.

This comment ricocheted around the globe, causing deep consternation in Arab capitals, where it was read as a sign that American troops had come to the region to stay, and in Iran, where it antagonized hard-liners. Baker tried to backpedal, but it was too late. On his subsequent trip through the gulf, he spent hours trying to allay concerns.

Thus, in trying to resolve some of the confusion that has characterized the administration's goals throughout the gulf crisis, Baker, the consummate political calculator, may have added to it.