WASHINGTON -- Some of President Bush's allies are criticizing him for promoting a landmark maritime treaty that would commit the United States to obeying hundreds of pages of international law, including provisions allowing foreign officials to order the US Navy and Coast Guard to release certain detained ships.
Bush wants the Senate to ratify the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which conservatives have blocked since the Reagan administration.
The treaty creates comprehensive rules for the world's oceans and their resources. Among other things, it governs interdictions on the high seas, offshore drilling and fishing, maritime pollution, and the right to sail through straits and other waters belonging to coastal nations.
A broad array of backers -- including the military, environmentalists, and energy companies -- advocate joining the 154 nations that have ratified the treaty. It preserves the Navy and commercial ships' right to pass freely through the territorial waters of foreign countries, and it would allow the United States to claim more oil and mineral resources on the continental shelf near Alaska.
But some conservatives argue that it is unwise for the United States to subordinate itself to the foreign officials who enforce the treaty -- especially in the midst of the war on terrorism.
In particular, the critics object to provisions allowing an international tribunal in Germany to resolve disputes over vessels detained on suspicion of illegal activity. The critics worry that the panel might order the United States to release a ship it interdicted because terrorists or banned weapons are on board.
"In an age of terrorists potentially getting access to weapons of mass destruction, this is not something that we can submit the Navy to," said Jeremy Rabkin, a George Mason University law professor and author of a book about preserving American "sovereignty" from multinational agreements, during a recent think-tank event.
Treaty supporters reject such criticism. They note that the treaty excludes "military" matters from the procedures for releasing ships. Only a vessel detained for illegal fishing or pollution may be ordered set free -- not one suspected of posing a security threat.
"If that was a possibility, if there was any realistic chance of that happening at all, do you think the Joint Chiefs of Staff would want to join this treaty?" said Captain Patrick Neher, head of international law for the Navy. "It's disingenuous."
The critics counter that the treaty leaves "military" undefined, allowing foreign judges to rule that a ship was not detained for legitimate military reasons -- even if the United States declares that it wants to decide for itself which operations are "military."
As proof that international tribunals can't be trusted to see things as the United States does, critics point to a 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The tribunal ordered the United States to give new hearings to 50 Mexicans on death row because police did not contact their consulate after their arrest.
Although the Bush administration disagreed with the tribunal's interpretation of a consular rights treaty, the White House directed courts to comply for diplomatic reasons. Bush then pulled out of a part of the treaty that gave the tribunal jurisdiction to hear such cases.
The administration has also steered clear of the Kyoto global-warming accord, scrapped US participation in the International Criminal Court, pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and declared that the commander in chief can ignore the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture.
Given that history, some conservatives are puzzled by Bush's support for the Law of the Sea treaty. Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official and president of the Center for Security Policy, a neoconservative think-tank, suspects Bush was misled into backing the treaty by diplomats who support multinational institutions.
"The president was under considerable pressure to reorient his policies in the wake of the Iraq campaign in order to demonstrate a greater willingness to work and play well with others," he said.
Gaffney acknowledged that the critics are fundamentally hostile to "the principles of supra-national forms of governance that come at the expense of the sovereignty of nations." He argued that the United States should rely on the threat of force, not a treaty, to preserve its transit rights.
But John Norton Moore, a University of Virginia law professor who helped negotiate the treaty and worked for the National Security Council under President Reagan, called the "idea that the US can simply shoot its way around the world" -- including in disputes with friendly nations -- "extraordinarily naive."
Moore also noted that Indonesia and Malaysia have refused to join a US Navy-led agreement aimed at interdicting ships suspected of smuggling nuclear weapons because the United States hasn't joined the Law of the Sea treaty.
"Why do these people believe that their imaginary horribles trump the entire experience and concerted view of the military of the United States for the last quarter-century?" Moore said. "It is a disgrace to be making a security argument against it when the treaty is so powerfully in the security interests of the United States."
Supporters also tout the treaty's economic benefits. For example, only members are able to gain international recognition for claims to undersea oil, gas, and mineral deposits on the continental shelf beyond 200 miles from their shore.
The dispute over the Law of the Sea treaty dates back to 1982. Reagan refused to sign it because of provisions that required rich countries to share mining technology with poor ones, which he said violated free-market principles. However, Reagan ordered the US government to comply with the rest of it.
A 1994 agreement eliminated the controversial seabed mining requirements. President Clinton signed the treaty and submitted it to Congress. However, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was then chaired by Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina and a foe of international organizations. Helms refused to give it a hearing.
In 2004, after Helms retired, the Bush administration asked the Senate to ratify the treaty. But then-Senate majority leader Bill Frist bowed to a new conservative outcry and kept it from a floor vote.
Earlier this year, after Democrats took over Congress, the White House again asked for the Senate to ratify the treaty.
"Joining will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our armed forces worldwide," Bush wrote to lawmakers. "It will secure US sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain. Accession will promote US interests in the environmental health of the oceans. And it will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted."
Treaty opponents acknowledge that they are isolated, but Rabkin said that the critics hope to raise enough doubts to block the two-thirds majority required for Senate ratification.
"You won't get two-thirds if this is perceived to be controversial -- and I am doing my best to persuade people it's controversial," he said.