IS Joe Biden auditioning to be the next secretary of state?

For the record, he says no. Actually, he said, "Hell, no," during an interview last week. But the thought isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, even though his poll numbers remain in the cellar among the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

What he does have, that the other Democratic candidates don’t, is a coherent proposal for dealing with the debacle in Iraq that is increasingly picking up steam. Foreign policy analysts, Capitol Hill politicians and even officials in the Bush administration have started sounding positive notes.

"The truth is, we could end up close to the Biden-Gelb proposal," a senior administration official said, referring to the partition plan that Mr. Biden, along with Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, presented more than a year ago in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times.

"Are we there yet?" the official added. "No."

But not "Hell, no."

Mr. Biden’s so-called soft-partition plan – a variation of the blueprint dividing up Bosnia in 1995 – calls for dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions, held together by a central government. There would be a loose Kurdistan, a loose Shiastan and a loose Sunnistan, all under a big, if weak, Iraq umbrella.

"The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group – Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab – room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests," Mr. Biden and Mr. Gelb wrote in their Op-Ed on May 1, 2006. "We could drive this in place with irresistible sweeteners for the Sunnis to join in, a plan designed by the military for withdrawing and redeploying American forces, and a regional nonaggression pact."

The proposal acknowledges forthrightly what a growing number of Middle East experts say is plain as day: Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis are not moving toward reconciliation; they still haven’t managed to get an oil law passed, and de facto ethnic cleansing is under way as Sunnis flee largely Shiite neighborhoods and towns, and vice versa.

The plan was dumped on when it came out last year. "Partitioning Iraq: No Starter" was the headline on a column by George Hishmeh in Gulf News, a daily newspaper that specializes in the Middle East. Mr. Hishmeh, a former writer for the United States Information Agency, pointed out a common complaint about the partition idea, that the very word "partition" has a bad ring to Arab ears given that a United Nations partition plan paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel.

Foreign policy analysts also pointed out that breaking up Iraq could cause bloodletting (as if that isn’t happening now) in Iraq’s urban areas. While Sunnis predominate in the western part of the country, Kurds in the north, and Shiites in the south, Iraq’s cities are not as homogeneous. Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul don’t have clear geographical lines separating the main groups.

Or at least they didn’t. The reality is, Iraq’s cities have become far more homogeneous recently as terrified residents have fled areas where their ethnic group doesn’t predominate. The neighborhoods around the edges of Baghdad have already experienced a lot of ethnic cleansing.

Officially, Bush administration officials maintain that they share President Bush’s hopes that increased American troop strength in Baghdad will tamp down the violence and create political space for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to reach a political solution. But testimony and interviews this month about conditions in Iraq indicated that the administration is already making de facto moves towards partition.

The State Department, in particular, has stressed a proposal to build up provincial reconstruction teams out in the Iraqi provinces, with the goal of strengthening local tribal leaders. That, in itself, points toward greater decentralization in Iraq.

By way of caution, experts say a successful partition of Iraq would hardly be easy, involving careful consultation with Iraq’s neighbors, including the feuding regional behemoths Iran and Saudi Arabia, not to mention tiptoeing around Turkey’s nationalist sensibilities on the Kurdish question. Mr. Biden, who said he believed that one way or the other, the United States would find itself in the role of trying to mediate a soft partition, recently went up to the United Nations in New York to chat about his idea with officials from the permanent members of the Security Council, and to try to enlist the help of the United Nations. He said he got a good response.

"One said to me, ‘What took you guys so long?’ "Mr. Biden said. "We’re going to get there either by our action or by our inaction; what we need to do is to manage this transition."

Hmmm. Coming up with a proposal on American foreign policy? Going up to the United Nations to try to sell it? Trying to get America’s allies on board? If this president thing doesn’t work out, that wouldn’t be bad experience for someone who did want to become secretary of state.