Why Is Bush for Law of Sea Treaty?

Despite its strong record of standing up to the United Nations, the Bush Administration has dismayed conservatives by supporting ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).

Originating in the 1970s as part of the UN agenda, critics say LOST would severely weaken U.S. sovereignty over territorial waters and subject U.S. oil exploration and other activities on the high seas to the jurisdiction of an international tribunal.

In 1982, President Reagan refused to sign the treaty. Twelve years later, with diplomats claiming that the treaty’s perceived flaws had been fixed, President Clinton signed the pact, although he didn’t push for ratification after Republicans won control of the Senate in 1994.

Earlier this year, however, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously voted to send LOST to the full Senate and President Bush gave his blessings to ratification. Officials of the Navy, Coast Guard, and Departments of Defense, State, and Commerce have all testified in the Senate for ratification, while Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that the treaty “remains a top national priority.” Most conservatives, however, are not convinced and still oppose the treaty.

As Doug Bandow, former Reagan Administration official and deputy U.S. representative to the third U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea, put it: “George W. Bush has stepped in where Bill Clinton feared to tread.”

Torpedo Needed

In May, when I asked White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan about the President’s position on LOST, he replied: “Let me get you some more information on that and I’ll come back to it.” The next day, McClellan’s deputy Trent Duffy called and said “the President included the Law of the Sea Treaty on his list for ratification. The administration is working with Congress to address concerns about the treaty–particularly on the issues of intelligence-gathering and security.”

When I asked McClellan a month later why the President would support ratification of a treaty that members of Congress were increasingly raising doubts about, he did not offer any reasons but made it clear that the administration’s pro-treaty stand was unchanged. “In terms of what my staff got back to you on in terms of the Treaty of the Sea, I mean, that’s what our position is,” McClellan told me June 22. “I don’t really have anything more to add to it right now.”

Admiral Michael Mullen, vice chief of Naval Operations, has acknowledged that under LOST, rulings by an international tribunal could “harm U.S. operational planning and activities, and our security.” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Okla.) recently held hearings on the treaty in his Environment and Public Works Committee. “I am very troubled about the implications of this [treaty] on our national security,” he said, “particularly in view of our continuing war on terrorism.”

Fortunately, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) has said the Senate’s packed schedule will not allow a ratification vote this year. Before it can come up in the next Congress, President Bush would be wise to consider the admonition of former Reagan adviser Bandow: “Ronald Reagan was right to torpedo the Law of the Sea Treaty two decades ago. Creating a new oceans bureaucracy is no more attractive today.”