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What Are They Thinking?

This past April, with the U.S. voting “yea,” the United Nations General Assembly approved the first UN treaty regulating the international arms trade. The ostensible goal is to curb transfers of weapons that would violate embargoes or abet acts of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity. More recently, Secretary of State Kerry signed the treaty on behalf of the U.S.

While keeping weapons out of the hands of those who would misuse them is a good thing, context is all-important with most such issues, particularly when the UN is involved. And the context here should raise red flags for anyone concerned about U.S. security interests and the growing international efforts to isolate Israel.

To be sure, it now appears that despite Mr. Kerry’s signature on the document, the treaty will not become legally binding on the U.S. In order for that to happen, the treaty would have to be ratified by at least a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate in the exercise of its “advise and consent” power. But fifty senators recently joined in a bipartisan letter to President Obama declaring their opposition to the treaty, thereby making a two-thirds vote to ratify impossible. In addition, the House of Representatives must pass legislation funding the implementation of the treaty – and a bipartisan group of 181 House members also issued a letter opposing the treaty.

But there is still the perplexing matter of Mr. Kerry’s assent.

For one thing, after the administration laid down the “red line” that the U.S. would support the treaty only if it was adopted by a consensus vote in the General Assembly, the secretary of state still went along with a vote of 154-3 (with 23 abstentions). This is not just a bookkeeping issue. Unanimity is a vital principle for the U.S. with regard to the General Assembly since the overwhelming majority of UN member states are aligned against the U.S. on most issues. This therefore represents a dangerous precedent.

Further, the treaty allows for amendments by a three-quarters majority vote, which means that as the treaty is inevitably amended pressure will mount on the U.S. to comply with changes it never envisioned or agreed to.

Even more apparent is the threat to Israel, which will continue to come under withering assault at the UN for alleged war crimes, state terrorism and crimes against humanity, only now the U.S. will face restrictions in providing military support. The treaty covers tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery systems, military aircraft, attack helicopters, warships and missiles.

Typically for the Obama administration, the State Department is seeking to end-run congressional opposition, arguing that the U.S. cannot violate the “object and purpose” of a signed treaty even if it was never ratified. Administration mouthpieces also suggest they can implement the treaty through existing funds rather than requesting new appropriations.

Plainly, the Senate and House letters are not enough. Many are calling for congressional hearings as well. It is important that the public be aware of what is going on.

President Obama has gone to great lengths to reassure Israel that the U.S. will always have its back. And he is acutely aware of the disdain with which most member nations of the UN view the U.S. So what are he and his secretary of state thinking?

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