Battling for the hearts and minds of American generals

When top military officers march out in lockstep to support an administration agenda point, those with an opposing view tend to be suspicious. During 2010 Senate hearings on the repeal of Don???t Ask, Don???t Tell, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) grilled then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, looking for an honest assessment behind the party line.

No surprise, then, that much of a Thursday hearing on the UN Law of the Sea Convention featuring a row of top military brass centered on whether the general officers who testified really meant what they were saying. Twice, members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations asked the panel of six four-stars from the Navy, Coast Guard, and Army, to say exactly that.

???Nobody twisted my arm in any way to be here today. I???m here to support the treaty,??? said Navy Adm. James Winnifeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The general officers made a case for the treaty similar to that laid out last month by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and CJCS Gen. Martin Dempsey: having an international legal framework would enhance safety of navigation on the world???s oceans for business and military interests, and give the U.S. greater authority in dealing with foreign governments attempting to violate rules of sovereignty.

???Candidly, I join my boss in finding it awkward in asking other nations to follow rules that we do not follow ourselves,??? Winnifeld said.

The commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Robert Papp, invoked a fictional hero, Master and Commander???s Capt. Jack Aubrey, saying Aubrey always positioned himself in battle so he could hold the weather gauge.

???I???m urging you today to seize the weather gauge and accede to this convention,??? Papp said.

Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said the treaty would become an especially crucial tool when the U.S. rebalances force strength to Pacific regions, as it plans to do amid the drawdown of combat in Afghanistan, particularly in helping to resolve competing land claims from different nations the South China Sea.

???It would give a framework for them to have that dialogue in a peaceful way,??? he said.

But to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), this was nonsense.

???It looks to me that it???s just the opposite of what we just said,??? he objected. ???Those countries are signatories to the treaty, there???s a dispute, and there???s no resolution.???

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) concurred, saying the benefits the generals cited were simply not tangible in conflicted areas, where they were most needed.

???This treaty is just a piece of paper and flowery speeches until the gates open and the rodeo starts,??? he said.

Meanwhile, some Republicans on the committee remained skeptical of the officers??? wholesale support of the treaty, particularly when they all refused to name even one negative potential consequence of accession, pressed to do so by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.)

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has long opposed Law of the Sea for the hefty royalties it would impose on the U.S. for mining in the deep seabed and on the continental shelf, and for provisions that might provide back-door ratification for environmental regulation, said he knew the generals had to fall in line with the administration???s agenda.

???I???m looking right now at 24 stars, and that???s very impressive,??? he said. ???But I???m looking at a letter that is signed by 33 stars. And these guys are all retired.???

The letter Inhofe mentioned, signed by nine retired officers including former Marine Corps Commandant Carl Mundy and former Chief of Naval Operations Thomas Hayward, urged the committee to reconsider signing the treaty on the grounds that the U.S. would lose much more in terms of sovereign authority and purview than its stood to gain in navigational provisions.

???We have demonstrated in the three decades since President Reagan refused to sign LOST that as a non-party great power we can exercise great and essential influence on matters involving the oceans without being relegated to one vote among 160-plus, obliged to abide by the will and whims of a generally hostile majority without the benefit of a veto to protect American national interests,??? the generals wrote. ???There is no basis for contending that we will be better off if we have a so-called ???seat at the table??? under such circumstances.???

Winnefeld said he respected the letter-writers, but disputed their understanding of the treaty.

Away from the hearing room, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Steven Bucci, now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told me that a united front does not always mean complete agreement, whatever the military party line might be.

???Having served at the highest levels there, just because the military is saying ???this is what we want??? publicly, when it???s something like this, doesn???t mean they???re happy with every jot and tittle in their heart of hearts,??? Bucci said. ???If they have objections, they probably voice them very vociferously. But they do it behind closed doors.???

While the military likes certainty and legal frameworks in which to operate, Bucci said, the idea of putting U.S. interests in the hands of an international organization had to make leaders uncomfortable.

???I???m guessing there are probably a lot of military officers, while on one hand they want this to be settled, on the other hand they???re as concerned about the form of this as we are,??? he said.

Later in the day, the hearing reconvened for another panel of expert witnesses that included former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Heritage expert Steven Groves, both arguing against the treaty.

The idea of ???international nationalization of two-thirds of the world???s surface??? had made Rumsfeld uncomfortable when the convention was first drafted three decades ago, and continued to do so today, he said.

???I suppose,??? he said, ???it???s also conceivable that it could become a precedent for the resources of outer space.???

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hear from a panel representing U.S. business interests before taking a vote on the treaty. The measure needs a two-thirds majority for passage in the full Senate, which will be unlikely unless proponents can recruit more Republicans to their side.