Former Bush officials clash over need for the Law of the Sea Treaty

Top George W. Bush administration officials clashed Thursday over whether the United States should join a maritime treaty at the United Nations.

John Negroponte, Bush's first director of national intelligence, joined the State Department's former top lawyer John Bellinger in warning that the Navy and American oil and gas companies would be hamstrung if the U.S. doesn't join the pact. 

But former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld countered that having to pay royalties to a United Nation agency was unacceptable to President Ronald Reagan in 1982 — and remains so today.

“Very simply,” Rumsfeld told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “I do not believe the United States should endorse a treaty that makes it a legal obligation for productive countries to pay royalties to less productive countries, based on rhetoric about common heritage of mankind.”

Committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), who lost the 2004 presidential election to Bush, did not conceal his pleasure at seeing Democrats united on the issue. The bickering over whether to join the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, “I'm thrilled to say is between Republicans.”

The hearing hit on familiar themes.

Joining the treaty, Negroponte said, is “essential” to gaining “navigational and economic rights related to the ocean.”

And Bellinger said the Bush administration took a long, hard look at the treaty before getting behind ratification in 2002.

“Let me emphasize that the Bush administration did not decide to support the Law of the Sea Convention out of a blind commitment to multilateral treaties or international organizations,” he said to laughs. “No one has ever accused the Bush Administration of an over-abundance of enthusiasm for the United Nations or multilateralism.”

He told Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) that Bush and Obama administration lawyers have concluded that the treaty would not require the U.S. to abide by other conventions, such as the global warming treaty.

“If we haven't signed it, it's not applicable to us,” Bellinger said, before undermining his argument somewhat by acknowledging that the concern was valid.

“There's an argument on the other side,” Bellinger told Risch. But “even if you have a fair point … the benefits outweigh the concerns.”

Those benefits include enabling U.S. oil and gas to explore and drill in the deep seas, something treaty advocates say won't happen unless the United States can protect their claims and their investments by joining the treaty. Proponents also say joining will protect the U.S. Navy by resolving territorial conflicts, something Rumsfeld countered isn't happening among member states in the South China Sea.

“In terms of dispute resolution,” Rumsfeld said,  “I haven't seen it.”

The hearing wasn't without tension.

Addressing the possible glut of environmental litigation if the United States joins the treaty, Bellinger recalled suffering from human rights lawsuits under Bush – something Kerry said was deserved, before adding he was joking. And when Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) questioned whether military officers who testified in favor of the treaty are really free to speak their mind, Kerry lambasted him for impugning their testimony.

And Steven Groves, a former senior counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation who's now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, took aim at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for suggesting opponents were driven by mythology and ideology. It's treaty advocates, Groves said, who have “blind faith” that joining a treaty carries only benefits.