President Obama the juggler has been spinning too many plates.

From unemployment at 15 million; to health reform God knows how or when; to the Middle East where the peace process has fizzled yet again; to Iran where the options are narrowing to what hawks say are “an Israeli or U.S. military strike now, or a nuclear Tehran soon”; to Afghanistan where U.S. troops have heard their commander trigger a verbal bombshell to a worldwide television audience: defeat is conceivable — and this despite eight years of warfare with heavy bombers, gunships, artillery, drones, satellite surveillance, $250 billion in U.S. civilian and military assistance, a coalition of 40 nations and some 100,000 troops, including 70,000 U.S. and 90,000 Afghan soldiers.

The new Afghan recipe, Gen. Stanley McChrystal told CBS’ David Martin on “60 Minutes,” is fewer kinetic operations and more emphasis on hearts and minds. He conceded things “are probably a little worse” since he took command three months ago; 265 civilians were killed in U.S. or coalition action in the past 12 months, according to McChrystal, a situation that would deny victory unless drastically curtailed.

McChrystal believes these Afghan civilian casualties are “literally how we lose the war, or in many ways how we win it.” He’s convinced it’s more important to protect civilians than kill Taliban or al-Qaida fighters. The Taliban, by contrast, kill anyone who is believed to be cooperating with Americans. And they don’t fear losing public opinion support. Overwhelming firepower, concludes McChrystal, is a surefire way of losing the support of the people. The 3,000 killed in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon are now lost in the new calculus.

In Vietnam, a general once said, “once you’ve got them by the balls, the hearts and minds follow.” Didn’t work in ‘Nam. Probably won’t work in Afghanistan. U.S., Canadian, British, French and Dutch troops — the only ones authorized by their governments to fight — cannot cover a country the size of France or Texas with the world’s most inhospitable terrain. This would require approximately 400,000 troops.

And that’s why Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen says a much larger Afghan army is an urgent necessity. The target is 250,000. But the 80,000 recruited thus far are for the most part illiterate. Their officers are 70 percent ethnic Tajiks. Pashtun recruits — the majority — don’t respect their Tajik commanders, and their ranks are assumed to be heavily infiltrated by Taliban agents. These, in turn, spread word Taliban insurgents will execute them after the Americans leave. Some go home after they get paid $80 monthly for the first time.

Forty years after Vietnam, few remember the lessons of that long-playing engagement. But, unlike Afghanistan, defeat did not mean the victorious North Vietnamese Communists planned to continue attacking the United States with suicide volunteers. In Afghanistan, there is little doubt a Taliban victory would bring al-Qaida back in a heartbeat to organize the next episode of their long-playing war against the heathen, decadent Western democracies.

Most of Obama’s plates will stop spinning as Iran and its nuclear ambitions take center stage. A tougher sanctions regime is to be agreed among the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — but Moscow, Beijing and Paris are expected to balk at the only sanction that could conceivably get the mullahs to cry uncle: a ban on the imported gasoline that keeps Iran’s cars and trucks on the road.

The next tableau in the unfolding Middle Eastern drama is Israeli airstrikes against Iran’s key nuclear facilities. For the rest of the world, this could not take place without a wink and a nod from Obama himself. For Zbigniew Brzezinski, the only way to convince the world otherwise would be for Obama to inform Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that any Israeli fighter-bombers flying over Iraqi airspace on their way to bomb Iran would be shot down by U.S. aircraft.

As implausible as such a scenario may sound, Iran’s asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities would spread mayhem up and down the entire Persian Gulf, from the Strait of Hormuz (25 percent of the world’s daily oil needs) where Iran’s seaborne Revolutionary Guards could sink a supertanker, to hundreds of missiles and rockets aimed at U.S. warships in the Gulf, to skullduggery by Hamas and Hezbollah throughout the Middle East. This week Iran’s maneuvers of well-publicized barrages of short- and medium-range missiles were designed to demonstrate the harm Iran could inflict on its own.

Alternatively, the United States could take Israel’s place. On its own, Israel cannot handle all the missions for a raid on Iran’s key and widely scattered installations (27 of them identified by satellite surveillance). Air superiority and naval superiority against Iranian mine-laying and shore-based missile batteries could only be done from Iraq- and carrier-based U.S. air power. Obama cannot afford to sit out the Iranian showdown lest he be seen as weak and ineffectual. Middle East scuttlebutt also has the Saudi kingdom turning a blind eye to Israel aircraft bypassing Iraq and refueling over Saudi Arabia.

Obama may decide not to acquiesce in McChrystal request for 40,000 additional troops. In which case failure in Afghanistan is — in the general’s own words — the likely outcome.

The president would then feel compelled to bare his talons. Three former CENTCOM commanders (Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, Gen. John P. Abizaid, Adm. William J. Fallon) with responsibility for a large slice of the globe from East Africa to the Middle East, including the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf, as well as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have said publicly we must learn to live with an Iranian bomb, as we did with China’s when Mao Tse Tung boasted China would emerge victorious from a nuclear conflict with the United States, and with the Soviet bomb when Nikita Khrushchev bragged the Soviet Union would bury the United States.

If that should occur, the next set of $64,000 questions will be the quest for nuclear equivalency in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the six Gulf countries known as the United Arab Emirates.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is an editor-at-large at UPI.  This essay was syndicated by  UPI‘.