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Drowning in a sea of Reagan

August 10, 2013

A proposal to name 3.4 million square nautical miles of ocean surrounding the United States after Ronald Reagan is thrilling a lot of Republicans and satirist Stephen Colbert.  “I’ve always known the ocean was conservative,” he giddily told his audience Thursday night. “Like the Republican party, it’s full of Great Whites.”

But among those who find the notion rather appalling is legal history professor Harry Scheiber, director of the Law of the Sea Institute at UC Berkeley.

“It’s a dreadful idea to mark out an area of this massive size and historical complexity and name it after anybody,” he said, “let alone Ronald Reagan.”

The bill would bestow the former president’s name upon a coastal zone that extends up to 200 miles offshore—an astounding amount of territory, greater than the land mass of all 50 states combined. Sponsored by Orange County GOP Rep. Darrell Issa and recently approved by the House Natural Resources Committee, it would require any U.S. law, map, regulation or record to refer to the territory as the “Ronald Wilson Reagan Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States.”

Critics note that Reagan’s moniker already has been applied to roughly 3,000 buildings, landmarks and locales, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the airport in the nation’s capital. But Scheiber’s biggest objection is predicated on the irony of it all:  Exclusive Economic Zones were created by a U.N. treaty that Reagan opposed and that his fellow Republicans to this day refuse to ratify or recognize. Although 162 countries have ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, the United States is not among them.

It was the Nixon administration that initially pushed for a global treaty to divide maritime territory among countires—establishing Exclusive Economic Zones from 3 to 200 miles offshore where foreign ships could freely pass while the countries themselves could indisputably extract oil, minerals and other resources. By the time an international agreement was hammered out, Reagan was president. He balked, angling for an amendment more favorable to U.S. seabed mining interests, and fretting that a U.N. bureaucracy and its Third World participants could infringe upon U.S. interests. Even after the treaty was changed to mollify the mining concerns and then-President Bill Clinton signed it, most GOP senators characterized it as a threat to U.S. sovereignty and continued to block it.

The Senate last refused to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty in 2012, despite the pleas of a wide array of treaty supporters including former presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, Republican and Democratic former secretaries of state, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Instead conservatives say they are satisfied that President Reagan in 1983 simply issued a unilateral U.S. proclamation declaring U.S. sovereign rights to “exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing natural resources, both living and non-living” in Exclusive Economic Zones stretching up to 200 nautical miles off the continental United States and all of its far-flung territories.

Reagan, Issa said, “understood that to remain competitive and to promote strong economic growth, we need to effectively develop and responsibly make use of our natural wealth.”

“And it’s been going great—especially the exploring and exploiting part,” Colbert enthused. “I’m sure we’ll get around to the conserving part later.”

But to Scheiber, who has traversed the globe participating in conferences and studies about international ocean law, it’s hard to laugh this one off. “Reagan’s principle importance here,” he noted, “was to take advantage of the decision other countries of the world have made to legitimize these zones, without committing to taking on any of the responsibilities of doing so. That’s the way it was seen, and is still seen, by observers around the world.”

The full House has not yet scheduled a vote on the proposed Reagan ocean zone. Also no word yet on whether congressional Republicans will embrace Colbert’s suggestion to designate “the storied swath of American atmosphere” 4 to 7 feet off the ground as the Ronald Wilson Reagan Economic Breathing Zone.

—Vicki Haddock

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