Center for American Progress

Senate Should Clip the Far Right’s Wings and Ratify the Oceans Treaty

Senate Should Clip the Far Right’s Wings and Ratify the Oceans Treaty




You might think that the Senate would promptly ratify a treaty that safeguards the ability of the U.S. military to travel the high seas on missions to protect American national security; enhances our efforts to interdict weapons of mass destruction; contributes to our energy security; secures rights of passage for over $800 billion worth of American imports and exports; supports the full array of America’s maritime industry, from fishing to petroleum drilling; and provides a framework for safeguarding the marine environment.

You might also suspect that a treaty that is unanimously supported by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including its highly-respected Chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN); the U.S. Navy; the U.S. Coast Guard; the Department of Defense; the State Department; the Commerce Department; the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy; every major ocean industry; the National Foreign Trade Council; the petroleum industry; and environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund would breeze through Senate ratification.

You might also think that should there be any hold-ups in the Senate, President Bush would personally intervene to ensure ratification of such an obviously important treaty—especially when it is one of five treaties he had earlier designated as "urgent" for Senate ratification.

Unfortunately, your thinking would be wrong. Despite the best efforts of Lugar to ensure the treaty’s ratification, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and his right-wing conservative backers are scuttling the Law of the Sea Treaty (Oceans Treaty). And the Bush White House refuses to do anything about it.

Why would Frist and the White House do this to a treaty that Gen. Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called "a top national security priority"? According to some administration insiders, the answer is nation-building. (Calls to Frist’s office were not returned.)

Nation-building? What can this possibly have to do with a treaty on the oceans? The answer is a bizarre quid pro quo.

In the late 1990s, right-wing foreign policy analysts at places like the Center for Security Policy invented a critique of what they called "nation-building." Though they seldom clearly defined what nation-building was, their message was clear: the United States should refrain from using its armed forces to secure the spread of democracy and to prevent moral atrocities. During his 2000 election bid, then-candidate Bush and his national security advisers/baby-sitters made this a central theme of their foreign policy.

Now, of course, the Bush administration is engaged in nation-building on a scale unseen since the reconstruction of Europe and Japan after World War II.

The right wing, for its part, has raised scarcely a flutter over the president’s flip-flop.

Apparently, the administration bought their silence by promising them free reign over America’s relationships with certain international institutions (i.e. anything even remotely smacking of the United Nations) and international environmental policy if they refrained from criticizing the administration’s new enthusiasm for nation-building. Since the Oceans Treaty involves both, the right-wing’s black helicopters have descended on the Senate floor.

Led by Frank J. Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy, the right wing has raised two principle arguments against the treaty.

The first, as Gaffney put it, is that the Oceans Treaty is a "giant leap towards world government." While it’s true the treaty creates several international institutions, these institutions will improve, not undermine, the ability of the United States to effectively monitor and assert its vital interests. Besides, saying that the limited institutional apparatus the treaty creates will inevitably lead to world government is like saying that if I start walking east, I will necessarily drown in the Atlantic Ocean. Gaffney and his fellow right-wingers should have more faith in America’s ability to stick up for itself when its interests are on the line.

The second argument is that a crucial amendment made in 1994 to correct what had been a serious flaw in the treaty is not legally binding. Never mind that lawyers from the Defense Department, the State Department, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee think this argument is entirely without merit, and that the right-wingers who have made it are not lawyers. Just step back and admire the right wing’s strategy here: if the treaty is so obviously in America’s security and economic interests, the only possible way to oppose it is by arguing that the parts that are especially important to the United States aren’t legally binding.

As Lugar concludes, Gaffney and his right wing counterparts oppose the treaty out of "ephemeral conservative concerns that boil down to a discomfort with multilateralism."

As a result of the right wing’s obstructionism, there is a danger that the treaty may not be ratified before November of this year. This is important because at that time, the treaty opens for amendment. Our failure to ratify the treaty means that we will not have any say in negotiations over amendments that could obstruct American national security and unravel the bundle of rights successive Republican and Democratic administrations have fought hard for since negotiations on the Oceans Treaty first began in 1973.

The Oceans Treaty is too important to America’s security and economic interests to let a few right-wing ideologues have their sporting fun. It’s time for Frist to clip the far right’s wings and join with Lugar to ensure Senate ratification of the Oceans Treaty.

Andrew J. Grotto is an associate scholar in national security at the Center for American Progress.

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