Guest column

Take party politics out of Law of the Sea ratification

By JOHN CASTELLAW | Published: July 5, 2012

It was once an article of faith that on matters of national security, all politicians were expected to “listen to the commanders on the ground.” This maxim was repeated time and again as the reason to oppose efforts to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the political world was suddenly — and appropriately — enraged with condemnation when a group referred to Gen. David Petraeus as “General Betray-us” for his advocacy of the 2006 “surge” in Iraq.

Apparently, however, this bedrock of faith in the credibility of the military is now little more than a rhetorical device to be discarded when the strong views of the military conflict with the ideological agenda of certain think tanks and well-heeled pressure groups. I watched intently as our nation’s top military officers — “24 stars” represented — appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to urge ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention. These are the senior military leaders, most of whom I know and a couple with whom I have served, charged with leading operations in some of the most volatile corners of the world. They are not only commanding maritime forces, but are also becoming increasingly engaged at the negotiating table — and they were unequivocal in testifying that the Law of the Sea is a critical supplementary tool to avoid conflict and avert the gunboat diplomacy that puts young Americans in harm’s way.

Their testimony should not have been a surprise; indeed, it was in part at the behest of the U.S. Navy that President Richard Nixon initiated the process of negotiating the treaty, and the military has consistently supported the treaty. What was surprising to see at the hearing was the vociferousness with which some senators who once urged policymakers to “listen to the commanders” accosted those same military leaders for their long-held views, questioning their veracity and credibility. Those who once said we must “listen to the military” now angrily libel that very military.

It was disappointing to see a senator belittle the commanders in such a manner, suggesting that they would change their minds after they retire, thus implying that these men merely regurgitated talking points to serve the interests of the Obama administration or were cowed into their position under pressure from “the chain of command.”

Enough is enough. I spent 36 years wearing the uniform of a Marine. I know from my own experience that the Law of the Sea Treaty is about national security, not politics — and it was deeply disappointing to see our military’s integrity questioned.

The facts in this case are as follows: First, our military leaders are not kowtowing to any administration’s line by embracing the Law of the Sea. Their voices join every chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1994 — 18 years! — and nearly two decades of military leaders who concluded that ratification is in our best interests. Current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey put the military’s view succinctly: “This support has been so consistent because of what the convention does for our armed forces and for our national security. Joining the convention would strengthen our ability to apply sea power. It codifies the navigational rights and freedoms necessary to project and sustain our military force.”

Second, when the military comes to Capitol Hill, they do so in order to express their professional view. Nobody twists their arm to testify. Contrary to what some may think, our military leaders pledge their fidelity not to the president or Congress, but to “support and defend the Constitution.” To suggest otherwise and to imply that these men were advancing a political agenda impugns their integrity and the institutions they represent.

There is a reason these military professionals support the Law of the Sea, and it is not attributable to partisanship or ideology. Think of the young lieutenants commanding patrol boats, Marines standing by to rescue hostages, or the Coast Guardsmen making law enforcement boardings to keep drugs off our streets and terrorists away from our shores. The military advocates this treaty on their behalf — because these brave men and women deserve the clarity and continuity that the Law of the Sea provides.

There are other benefits. Joining the treaty is another peaceful tool to help the U.S. bring the full weight of its influence to bear upon resolving disputes. Adm. Sam Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, speaks to the real-world security environment in the South China Sea, arguing that “the Convention is an important component of [a] rules-based approach and encourages the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. Here again though, the effectiveness of the U.S. message is somewhat less credible than it might otherwise be, due to the fact that we are not a party to the Convention.”

Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agrees, suggesting that “joining will … give us stronger standing to advance treaty arguments in support of partners who are being intimidated over disputes that should be resolved peacefully and voluntarily under the Convention.”

Some senators seem to think the U.S. can just rely on customary international law to safeguard essential navigational rights and high seas freedoms. But our military leaders know better. Gen. William Fraser, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, is responsible for making sure we can deploy, sustain and get our warfighters home without the permission of other countries. When asked why we cannot rely on customary international law, he gave a straight answer: “As emerging powers around the world grow and modernize, states may seek to redefine or reinterpret customary international law in ways that directly conflict with our interests. This Convention represents the best guarantee against erosion of essential navigation and over flight freedoms that we take for granted.”

Our military leaders have enough on their plate these days without having their integrity impugned. Contrived and baseless attacks distract from the core issue at hand: Is America going to lead or be left behind in securing its interests on the high seas? Will the lives of young Americans in uniform be put ahead of politics?

For all these reasons and more, it is critically important that policymakers in Washington begin doing what they once professed so deeply to believe: Where the Law of the Sea Treaty is concerned, it is time to listen to the commanders.

Retired Lt. Gen. John Castellaw served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 36 years. He is president of the Crockett Policy Institute and a board member of the American Security Project.