Big Sticks

To the Editor:
"Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far" - so said President Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

Much has happened in a whirlwind of diplomatic action in the past week. Just seven days ago, President Obama was faced with either launching a military strike against Syria in the face of American public opposition and contrary to the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, or eating his own words about crossing the red line and thereby looking weak and impotent.

But now Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov have hammered out a framework agreement for the international custody and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, and Obama is off the hook that he created for himself. Does he deserve plaudits for a clever and carefully calculated ploy whereby he deliberately put the matter to a disjointed Congress in order to buy time for a diplomatic option to be explored with the Russians? Or was he saved from a series of mis-steps and indecision by Putin dashing in on a white charger to rescue the maiden and save the day? Or was it something in between? Perhaps we shall never know until the full story is told by Obama in his memoirs.

Whatever the truth, one has to hand it to the respective U.S. and Russian teams of experts in Geneva for the quick and adroit drafting that came up with the framework agreement and its annex. One wonders if they started from a blank sheet of paper, or whether one side or the other arrived with a basic outline draft. The framework agreement has yet to be fleshed out with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague and the devil, as usual, will be in the details. The terms set a very difficult task to be carried out in the timeframe described and amid the circumstances of an ongoing civil war. There will be stumbles and hiccups and, given the practical problems that have to be overcome, it seems to me very unlikely indeed that destruction will be successfully completed by the end of 2014.

Later this month the UN Security Council will come up with a resolution which, to avoid a Russian veto, will not contain language authorizing use of force if Syria fails to carry out its share of the agreement, and Obama has reserved his position to use force unilaterally if he deems it necessary. Also this month the General Assembly of the UN will begin its annual session and we shall see addresses from the podium in New York by Obama and other heads of government, probably including Putin. And on top of that, Obama has congressional fights over healthcare, immigration, and the debt ceiling. It is going to be a bumpy ride.

Derek Boothby


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