The Obama administration faces difficult foreign policy choices in three hot spots which, due to its own lethargy and lack of persistence, have devolved into lose-lose situations.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Saudi and Kuwaiti foreign ministers this year. (Brendan Smialowski/Associated Press)

First is Afghanistan, where it turns out you can’t win a war on a timeline. The New York Times reports:

As President Obama considers how quickly to withdraw the remaining 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan and turn over the war to Afghan security forces, a bleak new Pentagon report has found that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners.


The report, released Monday, also found that violence in Afghanistan is higher than it was before the surge of American forces into the country two years ago, although it is down from a high in the summer of 2010.


The assessment found that the Taliban remain resilient, that widespread corruption continues to weaken the central Afghan government and that Pakistan persists in providing critical support to the insurgency.

The president has tried to convince the American people, our allies and our foes that the war could be conducted with less than optimal numbers of troops and with a strict timetable. That just isn’t so. He is now faced with a dilemma: Continue in lock-step with his emphatic 2014 withdrawal date or rethink his approach. At some point, it is hard to justify the no-man’s land (neither aiming for victory nor departing promptly) in which young men and women continue to die. If we aren’t going to win, why prolong the agony?

Then there is Syria. The Associated Press reports: “The Obama administration is declaring a Syrian rebel group with alleged ties to al-Qaida as a terrorist organization. It’s an effort to blunt the influence of extremists as the U.S. steps up cooperation with the Syrian opposition. The State Department’s action blocks Jabhat al-Nusra’s assets in the U.S. and bars Americans from doing business with the group.”

We are racing to catch up to events, trying to forestall the influence of jihadists who moved to fill in the vacuum while the United States did virtually nothing to assist the non-al-Qaeda elements of the Syrian opposition. Now, it is all a muddle, and trying to extract bad elements from less bad elements is a difficult task. Moreover, what have we got to offer the preferable elements within the opposition? The president has said we won’t give them arms. Once again, his indecision has allowed the situation (not merely the casualty toll) to worsen, leaving us with less leverage and fewer options. 

And last, there is Iran. Even though (or maybe because) the administration has been tripping over itself to restart bilateral talks with the Iranians on their nuclear program,  the Iranians have not shown interest. The Post reports that “despite positive comments in recent days from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other senior leaders, Iran has shown no hint that it plans to accept the offer, U.S. and European diplomats say. Instead, intelligence analysts are detecting signs of continued progress at Iran’s uranium-
enrichment plants and no significant softening on the part of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will ultimately decide Iran’s nuclear course, according to the diplomats.”

So when does Obama admit his approach to Iran has failed and that we have only provided Iran with four years of breathing room to develop its weapons?  Having played down the military option, Obama has little credibility with the mullahs, who no doubt figure we will be as reluctant to use force in Iran as we have been in Syria. Obama is facing the stark choice between acceptance of an Iranian nuclear power or a deadly Middle East war.

When you are faced with no good choices and are experiencing huge gaps between public rhetoric and reality on the ground, chances are your foreign policy has been a failure. Before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton starts measuring the drapes for her own presidency, she might think about how to resolve these three debacles that are largely of her and the president’s own making.