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Law of the Sea: A National Security Issue That Unites

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By Senator John Kerry

Conventional wisdom tells us that with the presidential campaign season upon us, the United States Senate is closed for business.

On the Foreign Relations Committee, we're working now to prove conventional wisdom wrong, because conventional wisdom may be convenient, but national security imperatives are too inconvenient to ignore.

That's why today we're having our second and third major hearings on the Law of the Sea Treaty, which one of my Republican friends calls "the best conservative treaty you've never heard of."

Don't take my word for it. It's a treaty that boasts an unprecedented breadth of support from Republican foreign policy experts, the United States military, and the hard-nosed, bottom line American business community.

It's an issue that President George W. Bush and I actually agreed on -- strongly, unequivocally. And it's an issue that just last week, all the living former Republican secretaries of state supported on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, days after former Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John Warner and Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donahue teamed up to support in their own statement of commitment.

On all these issues, I want to reiterate: don't take my word for it. I wield the gavel on our committee, but the bully pulpit belongs to many others who believe in this cause deeply.

Just listen to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At our first hearing on Law of the Sea, General Dempsey put it plainly: "Joining the convention would give our day-to-day maritime operations a firmer, codified legal foundation. It would enable and strengthen our military efforts, not limit them." I couldn't agree more.

He's not alone. Ask Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and he'll tell you the same thing. Here's what he said in his testimony a couple weeks ago: "The Law of the Sea Convention is the bedrock legal instrument underpinning public order across the maritime domain. We are the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that is not a party to it. This puts us at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to disputes over maritime rights and responsibilities with the 162 parties to the convention, several of which are rising powers." These are strong arguments.

And today we'll hear from four admirals and two generals -- 24 stars in all, in military parlance -- who will advocate for it without hesitation.

Some will question why we're doing this now -- why pour so much energy into a treaty that's been untouched by the Senate for the last five years and collecting dust for more than 25? Well, I think the real question is -- why wait? We've effectively lived by the terms of the treaty, even as a nonparty and a holdout. But we've deprived ourselves of its benefits! We live by the rules, but we don't shape the rules, we don't take our seat at the table and grab the veto that's awaiting us there to protect our interests against China and Russia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it best: "Joining the convention would secure our navigational rights and our ability to challenge other countries' behavior on the firmest and most persuasive legal footing, including in critical areas such as the South China Sea and the Arctic."

We need to get down to brass tacks here. We need to examine the facts and respectfully separate facts from old charges.

That's why our comprehensive hearings are so important. And it's why they'll be respectful to all sides and all perspectives, because I believe this is ultimately a test of whether facts and honest debate can still make a difference. I think they still can. My goal as chairman is to have an honest debate, not a contrived one and winnow out truth from fiction.

We started last month with our top national security leaders. Today, we'll be hearing from our most senior military commanders as well as leading opponents and even past critics. We'll also have the chance to talk with business leaders in the oil and gas, telecom and shipping industries.

And what I can tell you for sure is that we will consider all questions with the gravity and the seriousness our national security and our competitiveness in the world demands. This is a debate worth having.


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