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Obama administration faces defiance abroad, as foreign policy criticism mounts at home

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May 24, 2012: Iran's Chief Nuclear Negotiator Saeed Jalili speaks to the media after the U.S. and five other world powers met with Iranian diplomats in Baghdad, Iraq.AP

America's effort to mediate conflict and effect change in some of the world's most troubled regions has been met lately with a startling response, in country after country -- defiance. 

Iran stepped out of the latest round of talks on its nuclear program rejecting a key demand of negotiators and pledging to build two new power plants. 

In Pakistan, the country just jailed -- potentially for the rest of his life -- the doctor who helped the CIA track Usama bin Laden. To boot, Pakistan also wants $5,000 for every truck that crosses a still-closed supply route into Afghanistan. 

And in Syria, the establishment of a peace plan has been followed by weeks of bloodshed, with a massacre of at least 32 children being the latest tragic example. 

The turmoil and the defiance are now fueling foreign policy criticism from President Obama's political adversaries. 

Though the economy remains the top issue in the presidential campaign, trouble on the foreign policy front could fray the advantage an incumbent president typically has in that area. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has certainly not hesitated in pointing to the latest developments as a sign that the country needs a course correction. 

On Sunday, Romney seized on the massacre in the Syrian city of Houla to again challenge the president's policy toward the Assad regime. 

"After nearly a year and a half of slaughter, it is far past time for the United States to begin to lead and put an end to the Assad regime," Romney said in a written statement. "President Obama can no longer ignore calls from congressional leaders in both parties to take more assertive steps." 

He said the peace plan crafted by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan has "merely granted the Assad regime more time to execute its military onslaught," and he called on the U.S. to arm the Syrian opposition. 

The U.N. Security Council, in response to the latest violence, called an emergency session Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps recognizing the Annan peace plan has so far failed to stem the violence -- the death toll has topped 9,000 -- the Obama administration also reportedly plans to float a new plan paving the way for Syria's Bashar al-Assad to leave power. 

The New York Times reported that the plan is modeled on the transition in Yemen, where the president stepped down but left some elements of the government in place. In Syria, the U.S. reportedly would rely heavily on Russia, a Syrian ally, to put the plan into action. 

Without discussing the supposed plan, administration officials on Saturday condemned the Houla massacre, in which more than 90 people were killed including 32 under 10 years old. 

"Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account. And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. She said United Nations observers confirmed the Syrians were killed "in a vicious assault that involved a regime artillery and tank barrage on a residential neighborhood." 

The Syrian government later denied responsibility. 

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who ran against Obama in the 2008 election, on Sunday called the entire Syria response a "shameful episode in American history." 

The senator slammed the administration's handling of the uprising and cast doubt on the report of a new plan for Assad's ouster. 

"This administration has a feckless foreign policy which abandoned American leadership," McCain said on "Fox News Sunday." "It cries out for American leadership. American leadership is not there." 

He accused the administration of trying to "kick the can down the road" until after November. 

In a written statement released Sunday afternoon, McCain further detailed his concerns with relying on Russia to back a new peace plan. 

"Why should we expect this approach to work now, when months of Russian and Iranian support, including lethal assistance, has enabled Assad's forces to continue gathering momentum on the battlefield? This latest pursuit of Russian support for a policy of regime change in Syria will likely fail again, at the cost of much more time wasted and Syrian lives lost," he said. "The civilized world is failing the people of Syria. This latest attempt to win over Russia, like the failed Annan plan, is but a rationalization for inaction." 

Syria is just the latest hotbed where the administration is having trouble breaking through. 

In Pakistan, the government's decision to sentence Dr. Shakil Afridi, who helped the U.S. track bin Laden, to 33 years in prison drew outrage from Washington and raised new questions about whether the U.S. and Pakistan are in fact working on the same side in the war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Pakistan, meanwhile, is still trying to demand $5,000 for every truck that crosses its border on supply routes into Afghanistan. Those routes are still closed, in protest after the U.S. inadvertently killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers in a friendly-fire incident last year. 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week," rejected the Pakistani's truck-crossing demand and said the sentencing of the doctor was "disturbing." 

"This doctor was not working against Pakistan. He was working against Al Qaeda. And I hope that ultimately Pakistan understands that," he said, while noting the U.S. would continue to "work at" its relationship with Pakistan. 

As for Iran, Panetta reiterated that the U.S. will do "everything we can to prevent them from developing a weapon." 

"We are prepared for any contingency in that part of the world," he said. 

The latest round of international talks with Iran in Baghdad ended merely with a decision to hold another meeting, in Moscow next month. On the sidelines, Iran's nuclear chief reportedly said Sunday that there was no need to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, as the U.S. and other nations want. And he said Iran would move ahead with plans for two new nuclear plants. 

"I think that it's time to draw some red lines, the United States and Israel together," McCain said Sunday.