juliette kayyem

The world does not revolve around Benghazi

UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s statements regarding the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and the resulting uproar from Republicans, have raised a host of interesting theories. So much guessing over so few talking points: Will Rice still be nominated for secretary of state? Can Senator John Kerry emerge as the Rice alternative? Is the controversy all some secret ploy in which Republicans object to Rice, support Kerry, and thereby get former Senator Scott Brown back in office by winning Kerry’s vacated seat? (They might be getting ahead of themselves: I think, if I’m right, people would still have to vote for Brown.) If Brown does run again, will he stick with the truck?

If this saga of hair-splitting over Rice’s words and foreign policy machinations over her future should be given a name (like the Cold War or the Age of Terrorism), it might be “Unforgiving Textualism followed by Rampant Speculation.”

Meanwhile, we have so distracted ourselves over the Libyan incident that we seem totally blind to struggles in the real world and, much more significantly, our capacity to actually do something about them. Though former presidential candidate Mitt Romney was maligned for his comment that Russia is the number one threat facing America, he did seem to recognize the tendency of that once-great foe to take advantage of our distractions.


While all this Benghazi ranting was occurring, a series of consequential events were simultaneously unfolding. Russia, for the first time ever, sent an oil tanker up through the Arctic along the Northeast passage. So far, so good: It’s still there now and its movements can be tracked online. If successful, the boat, the Ob River, will be the first oil tanker to sail across the Arctic during winter.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Yes, during winter.

Here’s the problem: There are tremendous Arctic riches for the taking, and Russia is preparing to take them. Opening an Arctic route will significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to ship goods and move oil from Russia to Asia; the normal route via Europe and the Suez Canal can take weeks longer. Russia will also begin to lay claim to vast natural resources in the ocean, setting off a frenzy that will be powered by nearly a dozen floating nuclear power stations.

Yes, nuclear.

The melting oceans are, of course, an environmental concern. Science magazine published a report this week that both Greenland and Antarctica have lost so much ice that they are “losing mass.” The two largest expanses of ice are melting, making passages that once were frozen into fully navigable sea lanes.


Russia’s move this week to take advantage of the melting ice in international waters was predictable. But this groundbreaking event was largely ignored because of the controversy in Washington over who said what, and whether their words might affect their ability to become secretary of state.

Still, the United States needs to play a role in setting guidelines both for Arctic shipping and for the removal of resources from international territory. The process of managing the traffic, creating safety standards, and resolving claims to oil and mineral reserves in the Arctic, has been addressed in the Convention of the Sea, a treaty that all but one Arctic-bordering nation has signed.

Yes, the one is the United States.

Because of Republican fervor against international agreements, the United States could be missing a chance to protect its interests in what is essentially a new ocean. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not been able to advance the treaty, despite several hearings and broad agreement among experts that the need for guidelines is urgent. Russia, China, and the United States are all vying for access to the Arctic region. They need some semblance of structure and agreement before they start sending floating nuclear power stations, as Russia plans to do.

Earlier this year, the Senate committee’s prescient chairman was pushing for passage, recognizing that we are a few Celsius degrees away from the Arctic becoming one big foreign policy mess. That chairman’s name is John Kerry. You may have heard some speculation about him recently, just as the Russian oil tanker advanced through the Arctic ocean during winter.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.