About a month ago, far-right activists pressed hard for Republican candidates for President to take a position on the Law of the Sea. Most of them did.
Senator John McCain was asked about it on a bloggers’ conference call. The answer he gave satisfied the bloggers at the time, but if it really does mean he opposes the convention, it is at odds with over a decade of his well-documented leadership in support of U.S. ratification. No matter what his position actually is, the Straight Talk Express has been seriously derailed.
Here’s what McCain said on the conference call:
I’d like to make some changes to it. I think that we need a Law of the Sea. I think it’s important, but I have not frankly looked too carefully at the latest situation as it is, but it would be nice if we had some of the provisions in it. But I do worry a lot about American sovereignty aspects of it, so I would probably vote against it in its present form.
I would like to see a treaty as far something to bring order, for example, in a place like the Arctic right now, where thanks to climate change, it’s going to be far more important than it was. You watch the Russians asserting their sovereignty over it, and I’d like to see some order out of that chaos. But I’m just too concerned about the aspect of United States sovereignty being handed over to some international organization.
McCain says he’d “probably vote against” the treaty, but he leaves himself an opening wide enough to drive a truck through.
My guess is that McCain favors U.S. accession to the convention but wanted to play to the crowd and simply slipped and went too far (hence the “more flip than flop” title of this post). To support that view, here’s some e-mail dated yesterday that McCain’s office sent out about his position on the treaty:
November 14, 2007
Mr. and Mrs. Ray Spitzer
11228 North 58th Avenue
Glendale, AZ 85304
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Spitzer:
Thank you for contacting me regarding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. I appreciate knowing your views.
Historically, the U.S. has been a global leader in advocating the Law of the Sea. Proponents of its ratification strongly believe the Treaty would help strengthen our national security, promote the free and unimpeded flow of international trade and commerce, and protect our vital natural resources. It has been more than eleven years since the Treaty was transmitted to the Senate for ratification.
The Treaty provides a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas and serves as an umbrella convention under which rules are established for governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. I recognize there are wide ranging views held on this issue, but please be assured I will keep your position in mind should this resolution be brought up for debate in the full Senate.
Again, thank you for contacting me. Please feel free to contact me again on issues of importance to you or to consult my web page at mccain.senate.gov.
Again, McCain leaves himself room here, but there’s no doubt this is a supportive letter.
More important, though, is McCain’s efforts to get the treaty ratified over the past ten years. In 1998, McCain joined Republican Senators Susan Collins, John Chafee, and Frank Murkowski on a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging immediate consideration and approval of the Law of the Sea. A few years ago, when the Committee first considered the treaty under the direction of Chairman Richard Lugar, McCain was scheduled to testify in support of the treaty but backed out due to scheduling conflicts.
Since the letter to SFRC isn’t publicly available and McCain never testified before the Committee, that means McCain’s off the hook, rightt? Wrong. McCain submitted written testimony, which was included in the Committee’s report on the treaty to the full Senate.
McCain can’t run from this:
October 14, 2003 – Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing
PREPARED STATEMENT OF HON. JOHN MCCAIN, U.S. SENATOR FROM ARIZONA,
CHAIRMAN, SENATE COMMERCE COMMITTEE
I am pleased to testify, today in support of the Senate’s ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over oceans, and maritime and ocean navigation, I believe ratification of this important Convention would help strengthen our national security, promote the free and unimpeded flow of inter-national trade and commerce, and protect our vital natural resources. Its ratification would enable the United States to regain its leadership role in promoting the rule of law for the oceans and encouraging respect for traditional navigational freedoms.
Throughout our nation’s history, our security and economic well-being have long been dependent on our free access to the world’s seas. The oceans have helped to protect us against potential adversaries, facilitate the transportation and trade of our products, and provided abundant fish and natural resources in the waters off our shores.
The United States has historically been a global leader in advocating the Law of the Sea. After World War II, the United States was at the forefront in calling for a formal Law of the Sea and was one of its champions during the two decade struggle to draft this Convention. However, when the Convention was opened for signature in 1982, much of the developed world, led by the United States, refused to sign it over concerns with the provisions related to deep seabed exploitation.
In the early 1990s, the United States helped craft an important compromise which satisfied the many objections to the deep seabed mining provisions. Yet despite removing this impediment, we still have not ratified this Convention, which to date has been ratified by 143 countries.
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea provides a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas and it serves as an umbrella convention under which rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources are established. As a global power, the United States depends on ready and unrestricted access to the world’s oceans and international airspace. The navigational rights and freedoms codified by the Convention would ensure our military continues to have the mobility it needs to maintain a military presence around the world and move military forces where needed. Additionally, these rights and freedoms will ensure our nation’s ability to ship goods and materials throughout the world using the most expeditious routes.
Support for Convention ratification within the United States is widespread and diverse, including environmental groups, the maritime industry, the oil and natural gas industry, and the oceanographic research community. The Clinton Administration previously supported ratifying the Convention and now the U.S. State Department has indicated its support of ratification. Additionally, in one of its first official acts, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy publicly called for ratification of the Convention.
As a result of our failure to ratify the Convention, our national interests have suffered. We are now barred from membership on the Law of the Sea Tribunal and the Continental Shelf Commission as well as the right to name members to special arbitration panels which are responsible for settling interstate disputes. In these bodies, the United States has been relegated to observer status. Furthermore, the United States is barred from membership in the International Seabed Authority where parties to the Convention organize and direct ventures to exploit the mineral resources of the deep seabed.
The importance of the U.S. ratification of the Convention is further compounded by the emerging issues brought about because of Global Climate. For example, as the Arctic icecap around the Canadian Arctic archipelago continues to shrink and thin, some scientists have suggested the Northwest Passage could be open for possible year-round navigable passage within 10 to 15 years. As a result, the contentious issue of whether this passage will be an international strait or considered part of Canadian waters will need to be determined.
It has been more than nine years since the Convention was transmitted to the Senate for ratification, where it has since resided with the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Today’s hearing is an important step toward finally addressing this critical international issue and I hope it prompts Senate ratification of the Convention in the near future.
Again, based on the written record and the mail he’s sending constituents, my guess is that McCain wanted to win over the conservative blogger crowd and simply went a little overboard. More flop than flip. But we will see.
— Scott Paul