The Heritage Foundation got exactly the conspiracy-hyping president it deserves.
It was a close one as Senate votes go. Sen. John Kerry had just given a fiery speech in support of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and the clerk began to call the roll. Slowly, the lawmakers filed their votes in the well of the Senate, coming painfully close to making the CRPD law. They came just five votes short. And in the aftermath, the Heritage Foundation smiled at a job well done. In the influential think tank's view, the treaty "would obligate the federal government to defer to an unaccountable committee of academics and 'disability experts' in Switzerland in violation of the principles of U.S. sovereignty and federalism."
It would do nothing of the sort. Originally negotiated by George H.W. Bush's administration and signed by President Barack Obama, the CRPD is based almost entirely on the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed overwhelmingly in 1990. Nothing in the Senate ratification bill required any changes to U.S. laws or any deference to power-hungry Swiss technocrats. Nor was there any truth in the impassioned shouts of former Sen. Rick Santorum that the treaty's passage would strip rights from parents of disabled children. For the most part, the vote would have ratified a treaty fully consistent and in support of the biggest piece of U.S. civil rights legislation in the last 30 years. The vote failed anyway.
As Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin has reported, the result bitterly disappointed members of the disabled community, who had believed up until the conclusion that ratification was imminent. Not even the presence of a wheelchair-bound Bob Dole, the former Republican presidential candidate, on the floor could sway them. Majority Leader Harry Reid has already pledged that the treaty will be returning for another vote in the next Congress. Among those who won't be around for the next vote, but were instrumental in its failure this time around, is Sen. Jim DeMint, soon to be the former junior member from South Carolina, who announced two days later that he is leaving the Senate to become the Heritage Foundation's president.
DeMint's vote was never in question. The senator has long shown contempt for anything resembling international law. In rallying 33 of his fellow Senators to kill another treaty, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would codify international maritime boundaries and allow improved access for U.S. corporations to undersea resources and is supported by everyone from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, DeMint somehow managed to argue that the treaty "reflects political, economic, and ideological assumptions which are inconsistent with American values and sovereignty."
DeMint also did his best to spread the worst, most misleading rumors surrounding the disability treaty's contents, often mirroring Heritage's arguments against ratification. "We're afraid that if the language suggests that parental authority is not absolute, we're going to have an international body telling our parents they can't home-school," DeMint told WorldNetDaily, a site best known for peddling "birther" conspiracy theories about Obama.
Now, DeMint is leaving the Senate to head the organization that served as his own personal echo chamber -- and getting a nice pay bump in the process. It's a match made in heaven. DeMint has voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. He has introduced a bill to amend the Bretton Woods Agreements Act to repeal U.S. authority to provide loans to the IMF. He has often seemed to have difficulty distinguishing between Russia and the Soviet Union. And now he, in his own words, "feels like I just walked in the front door of my own house" to the group that has given him a 99 percent approval rating on his work in the Senate.
And what a group it is. The Heritage Foundation holds a special place in Washington's power corridors. Founded in the early 1970s and arguably the most important think tank in Washington during Ronald Reagan's years, the foundation has been highly influential in pushing policies ranging from missile defense to welfare reform to -- ironically -- an early version of Obama's health-care plan. Ostensibly more than a talking-points shop, Heritage continues to be a brand name in the capital, respected as a thought leader by some despite years of proof that the ideas it puts forward lack both rigor and basis in reality.
On national security, if there is a common thread that unites these ideas, it's a posture that sees virtually any form of international cooperation as a threat to American sovereignty. From nuclear arsenal reductions to Internet governance, climate talks, and space exploration, Heritage seems to see unaccountable international organizations chipping away at American power everywhere it looks. (Then there is the kooky stuff: The foundation has been at the forefront of hyping the supposed threat from electromagnetic-pulse weapons, Newt Gingrich's favorite nonexistent national security threat. The think tank even pushed for an annual "National Electromagnetic Pulse Awareness Day," which doesn't seem to have caught on much beyond Heritage's Massachusetts Avenue headquarters yet.)
Heritage's views on innocuous treaties like the CRPD are a prime example of its almost reflexive habit of putting forward ideas that appeal to its hard-line conservative base without backing them up with fact. The foundation's experts often seem to have trouble deciding whether the United Nations is an ineffective waste of money or an existential threat to national sovereignty. The result is a major political party in the United States that instinctively flinches whenever the letters "u" and "n" are uttered.
Consider Heritage's work during this summer's debate surrounding the drafting of another inexplicably controversial international agreement, the Arms Trade Treaty, which would regulate international small-arms transfers. The vast majority of Heritage's energy went toward fanning fears of a U.N. plot to take Americans' guns, painting the text as a clear threat to the sanctity of the Second Amendment before a single word was ever put to paper. The end result was an Obama administration that was so reluctant to face the full weight of the right's clamor over the Arms Trade Treaty that the United States scuttled any vote on the text until after the election.
Enter DeMint, whose appearance on CNN's The Situation Room on Dec. 6 couldn't have done a better job of highlighting just how close his worldview fits with his new role at Heritage. Pressed by host Wolf Blitzer about whether he voted against the treaty based on its content or his dislike of the United Nations, DeMint leaned heavily toward the latter. "The United Nations cannot take an issue of that importance and carry it effectively around the world. They're -- This is the group that wants to make Palestine a state; they're the group that wants to regulate the Internet," DeMint said. "If you look behind the scenes at the United Nations, this is not something that we want to turn over, the rights and opportunities for the disabled."
Outgoing Heritage President Edwin Feulner immediately agreed with DeMint, telling Blitzer, "We're with him. We did some of the early background on it. Our guy Steve Groves was writing papers on this weeks and weeks ago." Groves's papers include screeds against not only the CRPD, but ones also calling for blocking U.S. ascension to every treaty before the U.S. Senate including, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a harmless gender-equality measure that the United States is the only developed country yet to ratify.
In an age of entrenched partisanship, it's difficult to fault Heritage for choosing to frame its arguments from a certain ideological perspective. But it's certainly fair game to call out the organization for formulating those arguments in what is all too often a vacuum of facts, particularly considering the rise of Heritage's 501(c)(4) arm, Heritage Action for America, in 2010. In launching the initiative, which they called the "fangs" of the organization, Feulner and Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham promised to "guarantee that when a wavering congressman thinks of voting for higher taxes, increased regulation, or a weaker national defense, television ads in his home district will remind him that a vote for bigger government is a vote for less freedom." It seems to work: In the run-up to the disabilities-treaty vote, Heritage Action teamed up with anti-abortion groups and home-schooling advocates to successfully pressure several Republican senators into dropping their support. (To give you some of the flavor, a blog post on its website intoned ominously that "liberals -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- in Congress are trying to subject our country … to the whims of some board of 'experts' in Geneva, Switzerland.")
Heritage's antipathy for the United Nations runs so deep that even the Model United Nations, that educational bit of role-playing that has taught millions of high school and college students about international affairs over the years, is part of this sinister conspiracy of global domination. In fact, Heritage has been determined to expose the evils of Model U.N. for decades, publishing in 1983 a backgrounder titled "The Model U.N. Program: Teaching Unreality." In it, the think tank warns that "core curriculum for the Model U.N. simulation" is "the same curriculum used at the U.N. itself -- the New International Economic Order."
This is the work of a serious organization?
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