IF WE'VE LOST FAREED ZAKARIA ... Some slightly belated weekend thoughts on Iraq: As Kevin Drum noted on Sunday, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek (not to mention PostGlobal and his own TV show) has become a bellwether for establishment views on foreign policy. And now, he no longer thinks the U.S. can do enough good to merit our commitment to Iraq. This is a big deal, because Zakaria is influential and tends to have a nose for which way the wind is blowing -- though perhaps he's a little late on this one.

In other Iraq developments, speculation that the Baker-Hamilton commission (a.k.a. the Iraq Study Group) will recommend some sort of "soft partition" of Iraq along ethno-confessional lines has been front-page news here in Egypt. Since people here have a hard time imagining that America could screw up so badly, this news will be seen by many as confirmation that there was an American plot all along to divide Iraq.

Baker is now saying, however, that it will be impossible to draw lines that work in Baghdad's mixed cities. This was the essence of Juan Cole and Anthony Cordesman's criticisms on the devolving of powers to semi-autonomous regions, under the assumption that Baker's group had adopted Les Gelb and Joseph Biden's partition strategy. So we'll have to see what they actually come up with. Keep in mind, however, that our ability to affect events there is becoming more limited every day (though perhaps not quite as limited as Matt believes).

Baker said on ABC's This Week on Sunday that the commission hopes to deliver its final report by the end of the year, but certainly not before the November elections so as to take politics out of the equation (and thereby get bipartisan buy-in).

Another, less noted component of Baker's plan (keeping in mind that this is still a bit speculative) involves some sort of understanding or agreement with Iraq's neighbors, notably Iran and Syria. Whatever you think about Baker's past, he's a master dealmaker who has the credibility in Washington and abroad to make something work. Unlike the Bush administration (whose bacon he's saving), he clearly understands that there will be no stability in Iraq so long as its neighbors do not see such a thing to be in their interests. Baker also knows that he has some selling to do on this idea within the Bush administration, despite apparently being in regular touch with Bush himself and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. From the Bush administration's perspective, having an independent figure like Baker handle all of these tough negotiations allows them to distance themselves in case anything goes wrong. One of the risks they see in having Condi Rice or even Bush talk to hostile regimes is that those countries may simply use the occassion to embarrass the United States, or to score propaganda points in the region. No administration is happy when the headlines read "White House Comes Away From Negotiations in [Country X] Empty-Handed."

Baker, however, has been able to fly below the radar screen, at least until now. I am a bit curious, though, why he's surfacing at this time ... to intimate to wavering Republicans and independents that there's a "secret plan" to save our butts in Iraq? Or is this just the beginning of his sales pitch?

--Blake Hounshell