Obama Had a Good Week… in New York

How It Works
Sept. 27 2013 10:23 AM

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.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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.


Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company


How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
Business Insider
Sept. 18 2014 3:31 PM What Europe Would Look Like If All the Separatist Movements Got Their Way
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
Sept. 18 2014 4:00 PM When The Cosby Show Got “Very Special” Why were The Cosby Show’s Very Special Episodes so much better than every other ’80s sitcom’s?
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 2:39 PM Here's How to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police
  Health & Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.