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A sunken treaty
Scripps Howard News Service


April 13, 2005

Sorry, Charlie. First, your tuna-commercial royalties dried up. Now you've just been displaced by a new species - a dark-haired, white-mustached sort that surfaced unexpectedly at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings the other day.

There he was: The Weasel of the Sea.

John Bolton, President Bush's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has gotten a lot of coverage for his tough-talk criticisms about the world agency. But almost everyone seems to have missed Monday's priceless exchange in which Bolton earned his new designation. It happened when the senators started questioning Bolton about a topic that sends media eyeballs rolling upward in reflexive ennui - even though it is about a weapon we need in our war against terrorists.

It is the Law of the Sea Treaty, a convention signed and ratified by virtually every seafaring nation - except the United States. It is championed by the U.S. military and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark said the treaty "supports U.S. efforts in the war on terrorism" because it provides America "the freedom to get to the fight, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, without a permission slip."

If a rogue ship is carrying a terrorist's nuclear weapon, this global convention means the United States can ask the nearest ship, from any country, to intercept it _ pronto! Other strong supporters include Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and such politically strange sea-bedfellows as the oil industry and environmentalists.

The treaty's ratification has been blocked by a handful of conservatives, mainly outside Congress, who say it would subjugate U.S. sovereignty to U.N. bureaucrats - a claim firmly refuted by Rice.

Among those critics was John Bolton. Until Monday. Sort of.

When Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., asked about the treaty, Bolton replied: "The administration has submitted the Law of the Sea Treaty as one of its priorities, and I support that." What was his personal opinion? "Well, I haven't personally read the Law of the Sea Treaty," Bolton said. "I don't think I've ever read it, to be honest with you."

Sarbanes pressed: "Well, now, in an article in a book entitled 'Understanding Unilateralism in American Foreign Relations,' published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, you called the Law of the Sea Treaty 'not only undesirable as a policy, but also illegitimate methods of forcing fundamental policy changes on the United States outside the customary political process.' "

Bolton weaseled: "I don't have the article in front of me, Senator." He explained that President Ronald Reagan was concerned about one provision in the '80s, but Clinton officials "adequately fixed" it in the '90s.

SARBANES: But you wrote this article in 2000.

BOLTON: Right.

SARBANES: That's after these problems had been addressed ... how could you at that point be writing that it was "not only undesirable as a policy but also illegitimate ... "?

BOLTON: That was my opinion at the time based on what I knew at the time.

SARBANES: But you just told me that ... you thought the problems that President Reagan found had been addressed by that point, correct?

BOLTON: ... I have not independently gone back into that because I've been busy with other things, frankly. But if it's the opinion of my colleagues in the administration who are expert in these matters that it's satisfactory, I accept that.

Conservatives use Law of the Sea as a weapon for attacking the United Nations and rallying true believers. Republican senators eyeing the presidency in 2008 aren't anxious to get on the wrong side of the right over a treaty that is so little known that it can even be weaseled in obscurity, with the news media watching. An informed source provides a small tale of intrigue: President Bush reportedly signed a letter telling Lugar that he wants the treaty ratified. But others in the White House intervened; the letter, which Lugar hoped to use to persuade Senate conservatives, was never delivered.

Law of the Sea, while important, has run aground because it is nobody's top priority. Not the president's, Pentagon's, Big Oil's nor Big Green's. Bush can re-float the treaty and assure that it will sail through the Senate. But he's got to speak up, or better yet, given the Grand Old Party's timidities, whisper into the ear of Senate Republican leader Bill Frist (see also: Frist for Prez '08). The commander in chief needs to say that he wants Law of the Sea ratified - now!


Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.
E-mail him at martin.schram(at)

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