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Keeping LOST Underwater

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Some things are quintessentially American. Consider the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips by Navy SEALs.

Bobbing on the open ocean, our servicemen required just three shots to kill three pirates almost simultaneously. It was an audacious display of marksmanship and skill. Few other nations could even dream of mounting such a rescue, let alone pull it off seamlessly.

So why are many of our leaders intent on compromising our military’s ability to act decisively and effectively at sea?

For years, activists have been encouraging the United States to sign the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), a measure rightly vetoed by President Reagan decades ago and rejected by American leaders ever since. Now, the treaty has a friend in the White House.

“I will work actively to ensure that the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention,” candidate Barack Obama told the group “Scientists & Engineers for America” last year. He called the treaty “an agreement supported by more than 150 countries that will protect our economic and security interests while providing an important international collaboration to protect the oceans and its resources.”

The treaty purports to protect the world’s oceans. Ironically, though, it could make the high seas even more dangerous.

LOST would create a new U.N. bureaucracy called the International Seabed Authority Secretariat. How effective would the Secretariat be when it comes to security issues? Look no further than the U.N.’s toothless response to North Korea’s recent missile launch.

Pyongyang’s actions clearly violated a 2006 U.N. resolution that barred it from firing ballistic missiles. How did the world body respond? The U.N. Secretary-General said the launch was “not conducive to efforts to promote dialogue, regional peace and stability.” No kidding, Dirty Harry. The Security Council, meanwhile, mildly condemned the launch and told North Korea not to do it again.

And the North Koreans? They simply declared they would restart their nuclear program. “We have no choice but to further strengthen our nuclear deterrent to cope with additional military threats by hostile forces,” the country’s Foreign Ministry announced.

There’s no reason to expect the U.N. to do a better job of deterring pirates than it does deterring North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. In fact, it’s likely to be even more ineffective against ocean raiders than it is against atomic rogue states.

A nuclear program, after all, is expensive and involves many fixed assets. But pirates work in small teams aboard tiny boats on vast oceans. They can strike, quickly collect a ransom and disappear before U.N. bureaucrats even have time to book suitable accommodations at a beachfront hotel.

Had the United States been party to LOST, could our military’s hands in the Phillips’ rescue have been tied? According to The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, the treaty “enjoins naval ships from simply firing on suspected pirates. Instead, they are required first to send over a boarding party to inquire of the pirates whether they are, in fact, pirates.”

The ambiguities in LOST could lead to international institutions second-guessing the U.S. In this case, the question is whether or when lethal force is appropriate when responding to acts of piracy.

The convention would also require the U.S. to change other military practices. For example, we’d be limited in our ability to collect intelligence at sea. So much for the moment-to-moment updates the SEAL team relied on.

We’d also lose our Navy’s freedom of movement. Article 20 of LOST would require American submarines, for example, to travel on the surface and show their flags while sailing within another country’s waters. So pirates could confidently evade our Navy by simply ducking into any country’s territorial waters.

There’s no downside to telling the treaty’s proponents to, well, get lost. Without it, American ships will still enjoy freedom of movement and our Navy has the freedom to act to protect them -- and any other vessels legally plying the seas.

The world needs an empowered American military, not a U.N. bureaucracy, to protect commerce at sea.

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