Proponents of a treaty governing the high seas rolled out military star power Thursday to try to lift the prospects for a long-spurned pact that faces strong conservative Republican opposition.
Four admirals, including the chief of naval operations and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and two generals appealed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United States is the only major nation that has refused to sign the treaty, which was concluded in 1982 and been in force since 1994.
The appearance by the military leaders came just a few weeks after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a rare joint appearance before the committee to argue for the treaty.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the panel's chairman, is trying to build a case for the pact, which is endorsed by 161 countries and the European Union. Kerry is holding out the possibility of a vote in a congressional lame-duck session after the November elections.
The military leaders insisted that the pact would improve national security and enhance U.S. standing in the world, while conservatives say the treaty would undermine U.S. sovereignty. The United States has abided by the rules of the treaty since President Ronald Reagan's administration.
"It will fortify our credibility as the world's leading naval power and allow us to bring to bear the full force of our influence on maritime disputes. In short, it preserves what we have and it gives us yet another tool to engage any nation that would threaten our maritime interests," said Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, said Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz signals the importance of ratifying the treaty to deal with violations of international law that would limit access to international waters.
Said Kerry: "Do we really want to entrust our national security to an unwritten set of rules? Is there any other area in which we choose to leave important matters of national security to customary law? The answer to both questions is no."
The treaty establishes a system for resolving disputes in international waters and recognizes sovereign rights over a country's continental shelf out to 200 nautical miles and beyond if the country can provide evidence to substantiate its claims.
Conservative Republican opposition puts GOP lawmakers in an unusual spot, at odds not only with the business industry including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute as well as the nation's military leaders. Twenty-six of the Senate's 47 Republicans have signed a letter pledging to oppose the treaty if it gets to the Senate for a vote.
GOP members of the committee challenged the military witnesses, questioning why the treaty hasn't helped to resolve disputes in the South China Sea.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, was clearly angry with Adm. Robert Papp, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, who testified that the U.S. is involved in dispute that can only be resolved within the treaty.
"Our border between Canada and Alaska is under dispute," Papp said. "We can't negotiate with all of the tools in our tool bag with Canada unless we are members of the convention."
That elicited a rebuke from Risch.
"Admiral Papp, you know, we sit here every day and it isn't very often our intelligence is insulted. But for you to come here and tell us that we can't resolve a border dispute with Canada because we're not a member of this Law of the Sea treaty really does that," the senator said.