The World

Obama Had a Good Week… in New York

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. President Barack Obama joins in a toast with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during a luncheon for delegates and heads of state at the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly on September 24, 2013 in New York City. 

Photo by Allan Tannenbaum-Pool/Getty Images

In contrast to previous years, and by the standards of the bizarre and confusing last few weeks, the Obama administration had a surprisingly fruitful General Assembly week, with tentative progress made on Syria, Iran, and the international arms trade. Now, let me undermine that lede with half a dozen more caveats.

The main headline is the deal hammered out on Syria’s chemical weapons, which has been approved by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.  Yes, there’s an awful lot to be skeptical about in this resolution. The draft text does not include any automatic penalties if Syria fails to comply with the inspections and destruction program. Rather than invoking Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which deals with the use of force in response to breaches of the peace, the parties used the workaround of Article 25, which obligates parties to carry out the council’s decisions.

And while the resolution urges that “those individuals responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic should be held accountable,” it avoids attributing blame for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack or suggesting that those responsible be referred to the International Criminal Court.

While the administration is putting out signals that Assad’s chemical arsenal can be destroyed more easily than expected, I still don’t understand how inspectors can pull this off in the midst of a bloody conflict when that’s never been done before and such operations always go past deadline and over budget even under the best of circumstances.

And of course the deal does little to address the increasingly complex war in Syria, but the administration has made it clear that its priority is the chemical weapons and that it would prefer to act through the U.N. Given that, this is almost certainly the best deal they could have expected and it’s the first time in recent memory that the Council has agreed on anything related to Syria

Meanwhile, while President Rouhani’s questionable grasp of historical events might be getting the headlines, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif held the most high-level meeting between U.S. and Iranian officials in three decades, and new international talks on Iran’s nuclear program with the five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany will be held in Geneva next month. It’s not clear whether Iran is actually changing its negotiating position, but these talks have been stalled for months so in the world of nuclear diplomacy, this counts as progress.

Then there’s the Arms Trade Treaty, which the United States, along with a majority of U.N. member states, signed this week. Again, plenty of caveats: the U.S. hasn’t actually ratified the treaty and won’t until the NRA magically ceases to exist as a potent political force on Capitol Hill. But the U.S. signing can help the treaty gain momentum. Fifty countries need to ratify for it to go into effect. Only six have so far, but 107 have signed.

It may sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but by U.N. week standards, that’s a lot! Of course skepticism is still warranted, particularly on Iran and Syria. In Middle East diplomacy, the skeptics are right 99 percent of the time. But compared to what’s going on back in Washington and how the president’s foreign policy looked a few weeks ago, this can be considered a productive week at Turtle Bay.

[Update 4:24 p.m.: Obama and Rouhani spoke by phone on Friday afternoon.