GOP Opposes Broadly Supported Treaty—Again

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The GOP's growing opposition to the Law of the Sea Treaty this week feels like the drama around the New START Treaty two years ago. Just like with that previous treaty, the Obama administration has trotted out a diplomatic dream team to vouch for its merits. Every living secretary of state has endorsed the treaty. Last month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey all testified in favor of the treaty.

In the fall of 2010, I attended a briefing on the New START Treaty. A former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine told us that if a Republican president had been pushing for the treaty, it would have already passed the Senate 95-0. As it turned out, of course, the treaty would eventually stagger to the Senate floor, passing the chamber in that year's dramatic lame duck session only after frantic behind-the-scenes lobbying by the Administration. For many agonizing weeks, it had looked as though a treaty that securely reduced the number of nuclear weapons in the world might not pass the world's greatest deliberative body.

A few months later, I sat down with a high-level staffer for one of the GOP Senators who had voted for the START Treaty. I asked him to take me into the back room and explain the decision to vote for the treaty. He gave a very simple answer, that the Senator had reviewed the pros and cons of the treaty and decided it was in the national interest. "But it was such a hard vote. Your base was strongly against it," I said. (The Senator's Facebook wall was overwhelmed by constituents protesting the treaty). "Not really," the staffer told me. "All of that was only in the last couple weeks after talk radio got hold of the issue." He also told me that the Heritage Foundation had turned out a lot of talking points on the debate that didn't stand up to scrutiny: the treaty debate has been the turning point in that staffer losing trust in Reagan's favored think tank.

The same partisanship that nearly scuttled the New START Treaty is now at work in the Law of the Sea Treaty, a law that has nearly unanimous support in all branches of the U.S. military and all across the U.S. business community, constituencies, of course, that should be natural Republican strongholds. Except when a Democrat president is involved. Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, sums up the case for the treaty in The Atlantic:

And yet the treaty continues to face stubborn opposition from a vocal conservative minority of purported defenders of U.S. sovereignty, still trotting out long-discredited talking points.

All of the uniformed services--and especially the U.S. Navy--are solidly behind UNCLOS. American military leaders have always been discriminating when it comes to treaties, traditionally resisting those (like the Rome Statute of the ICC) that might put U.S. servicemen and women at risk. But they support UNCLOS because it will enable, rather than complicate, their mission. Because the United States was the principal force behind the negotiation of UNCLOS, it contains everything the U.S. military wants, and nothing that it fears.