There was nary a liberal in sight, but the ideological divisions were deep, pointed and at times personal at a recent Heritage Foundation debate on whether the United States should finally ratify the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty.
The intramural dispute among conservatives may be a warning shot to President Bush, who once again will face a restive political base as he pushes for ratification of a treaty that has languished in the Senate for more than a dozen years.
Fears that the United States will lose valuable economic rights or military privileges under the treaty are “an insult to our intelligence,” said conservative University of Virginia law professor John Norton Moore, a specialist in maritime-security law and a member of the U.S. negotiating team on the Law of the Sea Convention.
But sitting just to Mr. Moore’s left at the Heritage session, Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, called the text Mr. Moore helped negotiate an “Orwellian paean to socialism.”
“I’m sorry to see that the Bush administration is not being conservative and does not seem to care about its base,” Mr. Gaffney said. “The only way this treaty will be enacted is if nobody reads it.”
The 1982 pact, modified significantly in 1994 to meet U.S. concerns over deep-seabed minerals rights, is a vastly ambitious effort to codify and enforce the rules of the road on the high seas, touching on coastal sovereignty rights, navigation for commercial and military vessels, environmental protections and guidelines for mining, fishing, energy and other businesses that tap the wealth of the world’s oceans.
President Reagan refused to submit the original 1982 text to the Senate, but treaty proponents say the 1994 changes greatly improved the treaty and would lock in major benefits for both the U.S. military and U.S. businesses. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, most major trade groups and the American Bar Association are among those who have called for U.S. ratification.
“It helps me do my job,” said Rear Adm. William D. Baumgartner, the U.S. Coast Guard’s judge advocate general.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, and ranking Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana are both strong supporters. After President Bush in May issued a statement calling for Senate ratification, Mr. Biden said he would press for its passage in his committee.
Conservative treaty backers say the pact is in fact a victory for such ideals as property rights, military strength and the rule of law.
“Conservatives should understand that U.S. security and economic interests are being undercut by continued U.S. absence from this convention,” said Fred Tipson, former counsel to the then-Republican majority on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The 1982 version of the treaty would not have received Senate approval, but President Reagan’s major objections were addressed in later amendments, and it deserves Senate advice and consent without further delay,” he said.
Mr. Lugar in May blamed the long delay of ratification on “ideological posturing and flat-out misrepresentations by a handful of amateur admirals.”
But some of Mr. Bush’s biggest political setbacks have come when he found himself at odds with his own conservative supporters, from the scuttled Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers in October 2005 to last week’s Senate vote that effectively killed a major immigration-reform bill.
Heritage Foundation analyst Baker Spring said there are elements in the 202-page text that offend every branch of modern conservatism, from Burkean conservatives jealous of national sovereignty and neo-conservatives wary of restraints on American power to free-market libertarians who charge that the treaty opens the door to U.N. oversight of the world’s sea resources.
Mr. Spring said the treaty was originally conceived to focus simply on navigation rights, not on the broader issues the present text includes.
If the drafters had stuck to the narrow agenda, he said, “this would have sailed through the Senate.”
Even supporters of the treaty acknowledge that most of the passion in the debate so far has come from the opposition. Conservative talk-show radio hosts and movement figures such as Phyllis Schlafly have already slammed the administration’s low-key campaign to get a new Senate vote.
“It’s not only dangerous to national security for the administration to promote the Law of the Sea Treaty, it is a stupid political move that will diminish the shrinking percentage of conservatives who still support Bush,” Mrs. Schlafly wrote in a recent column.
A similar administration effort in 2004 produced a unanimous endorsement in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But objections by conservative senators — and the reluctance of the Senate Republican leadership to twist arms — prevented a floor vote.
In an analysis last month for the newsletter of the American Society of International Law, University of California at Berkeley legal scholars David C. Caron and Harry N. Scheiber, co-founders of the Law of the Sea Institute, strongly back the treaty but acknowledge the political hurdles it faces.
“It is likely that no other treaty has ever been so widely supported and yet failed to be put to a vote in the Senate for such a long duration,” they said.