Republican Rightwingers Find an Iraq-on-sea
The UN law of the Sea is supported by everyone from environmentalists to George Bush - just not fulminating unilateralists in the Senate
Elana Schor in Washington
Thursday October 25, 2007
Conservative senators and critics of the United Nations are attempting once again to stop the US joining an international treaty on access to the world's waters, despite support for it from the military and George Bush.
The UN's Convention of the Law of the Sea, already ratified by more than 150 countries, sets up a system to manage navigation and explore the oceans.
Environmental groups endorse the treaty's protection of global fish stocks, the US navy endorses its assurance of free movement and the oil industry's trade group endorses its promise of a level playing field for companies staking claim to drill in the Arctic.
But Republican antagonists in the Senate, several of whom have derailed the treaty twice in the past, discount even the Bush administration's backing. They yesterday blocked a preliminary ratification vote, and in doing so declared it an auspicious date for foes of international institutions.
"There is no better time to celebrate the 62nd birthday of the United Nations than to say we don't want it," said Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican senator who leads an annual effort to withhold US funds from the UN.
The treaty runs more than 200 pages, giving forces on both sides of the debate ample opportunity to divine its potential consequences. At its core, however, the clash recalls the ideological battles over invading Iraq, pitting America-first lawmakers against those who decry the consequences of "cowboy diplomacy".
Scott Paul, deputy director of government relations at the grassroots group Citizens for Global Solutions, noted the treaty's broad support among Democrats and pressed moderate Republicans to speak up.
"The fact we've been unable to ratify a treaty that's so strongly in our interests is, frankly, an indictment of our foreign policy," Mr Paul said.
Citing polls that show widespread support in the US for working with allied nations in the aftermath of Iraq, he added: "At times that will entail some measure of sacrifice. If we can't do it on the law of the sea treaty, which entails no sacrifice, how are we going to do it at any other time?"
The Senate foreign relations committee now is poised to approve the treaty next week, after which two-thirds of the full chamber must vote in favor to ensure ratification. Mr Bush has dispatched John Negroponte, the hawkish deputy secretary of state, and senior navy officials to help lobby Republicans.
That may not be enough to overcome the Republicans' famous mistrust of the UN. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republicans' second in command in the Senate, said he has studied seafaring treaties since law school. His advice to the military: "Have a strong and robust navy ... so you're not going to have somebody tell you where you can't go."
Republicans on the foreign relations panel, who suspect chair Joseph Biden and ranking member Richard Lugar of stacking hearings on the treaty with more advocates than critics, have begun scheduling their own private briefings on the law of the sea.
"We've reached out to a number of groups," said Bob Corker, freshman Republican from Tennessee. He declined to name the briefers, acknowledging that he had spoken so far only to opponents.
Outside the Capitol, the roster of foes looking to sink the treaty reads like a who's who of the Reagan era: Frank Gaffney, the former Richard Perle aide who now fronts the Center for Security Policy; Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum; Edwin Meese III, the Reagan attorney general embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal; and Oliver North, the Marine officer indicted in that affair.
Indeed, critics of the 202-page treaty deride its tone as reminiscent of the Cold War. When Mr Lott referred to Russia's membership in the pact, Jeff Sessions of Alabama "corrected" him by noting that "the Soviet Union" had signed on.
Later Mr Sessions likened the treaty - which conservatives have dubbed LOST - to the tale of Gulliver and the Lilliputians, with the US in the starring role.
"You've got the giant, and they tie [him] down with this string, then this string. [He] is not able to move," Mr Sessions said.
Progressive commentators, such as Steve Clemons and Matt Stoller, have drawn attention to the treaty as a worthy cause.
Andrew Rice, the Democratic state senator aiming to unseat Mr Inhofe next year, chastised the Oklahoman for standing in the way of military priorities by blocking the treaty.
Treaty opponent Steven Groves of the conservative Heritage Foundation, where Mr Meese is a senior member, dismissed the contention that trusting the military's strategy - Republican rhetoric of the recent Iraq hearings with General David Petraeus - would oblige Republicans to back the treaty.
"Any senator who says, 'we'll support any policy position taken by any branch of the US military and not give it any second thought or critical study' is not the type of senator I would trust," Mr. Groves said.
When the treaty will come to a vote remains to be seen. Pending claims to the Arctic and Antarctic seabed planned by the UK, Australia, Russia and other signatories to the compact have added to its momentum, but Mr Lott and three other Republican leaders vowed that a final vote would not take place.
"I'm not going to get in a twit about what the Swiss or Belgians may think about us," Mr Lott said.
The treaty would come to the floor with procedural privileges that prevent a filibuster, leaving conservatives little choice but to broadcast their warnings as loudly as possible. In 2004, then-majority leader Bill Frist refused to bring the treaty for a vote, but new Democratic majority leader Harry Reid is unlikely to do the same.
In the meantime, the law of the sea has picked up steam as the conservative base evaluates Republican presidential candidates. Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson have pointedly broken with Mr. Bush on the treaty. "At a time when customary international law in this area has proven sufficient, I believe the efforts of treaty proponents would be better spent reforming the United Nations," Mr. Thompson said yesterday.
John McCain, the Arizona senator and decorated navy pilot, declined to answer a question about the treaty.