Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 11, 2020
Here’s another topic that has never reached a political debate stage: The Trump administration has endorsed — and is developing — cluster bombs and antipersonnel land mines that have been banned by 160 countries.
Amid endless questions about the details of health plans that may never make it through future Congresses, there are lots of values-laden issues that should be distinguishing these remaining Democratic challenges to a Trump reelection.
Like the importance of human rights defense, what kind of weapons we embrace, what kind of treaties we seek or dismiss, are expressions of our America values and the realities from isolation from allies and leadership in the international arena.
A recent New York Times article laid out the effort, under way since 2017, to pursue the rebuilding of land mine stocks that have been banished by 160 nations because they last long after fighting ends in temporal wars. There has been little public discussion or explanation by the Pentagon or White House.
In a recent briefing, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that the land mines were considered critical to any mission against Russia or China where a goal is to deny enemy troops the ability to advance on the battlefield. As he put it, the policy is intended “to provide the commanders on the ground nonpersistent munitions that are necessary for mission success in major contingencies in extreme or exceptional circumstances.”
According to The Times, former Defense Department officials had been studying re-introduction of land mines since 2017, Russia’s rapid invasion and annexation of Crimea. Then Defense Secretary James Mattis overrode a 2008 memo suspending almost all cluster weapons.
As last October, the Army had paid $11.5 million to Northrop Grumman and $23.3 million to Textron for the development of new anti-vehicle mines, The Times said, quoting officials from an Army weapons research and development center.
Not to assert any special military planning knowledge here, but if the world’s biggest threat is from terrorism by small groups, how does a $60 million land mine contract contribute to stop that?
Meanwhile, of course, the rest of the world, particularly in those areas where the land mines get placed, worry about forgotten cluster weapons going off years later, killing or maiming civilians, including overly curious children.
In 1997, more than 120 countries signed the Ottawa Convention banning antipersonnel land mines that explode indiscriminately. Notably, the United States was not among them, citing a need to use these mines along the border between North and South Korea, and it is not among the 164 nations that are now party to the treaty. Last week, the Trump administration said it would reverse a 2014 measure by the Obama Pentagon that restricted use of land mines to the Korean Peninsula.
America’s allies in Europe, presumably the region where we now might lay mines, have expressed dissatisfaction, which the Trump administration has ignored, adding more reason for strained relations.
The Times said that newer generations of American mines are supposed to self-destruct after a preset amount of time, but have failed to do so in combat conditions. Pentagon officials have yet to explain how the new antipersonnel land mines they wish to use would differ technologically from those.
Before we had precision-guided weapons, unguided cluster munitions would launch over a large area to counter inaccurate bombs or artillery fire. Now that laser-guided d weapons are normal, military officials and humanitarian rights groups say these weapons are unnecessarily inhumane. American military forces last used land mines and cluster munitions in large quantities during the 1991 Gulf war, and cleanup efforts in Kuwait and Iraq to find and destroy unexploded ordnance of both types continue today. Since 1993, the United States has spent $3.4 billion to demine and eradicate unexploded ordnance in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where civilians still are killed by the remnants left over from the Vietnam conflict.
Juan Carlos Ruan, who serves as a director of the Ottawa Convention, explained that “There is no such thing as ‘responsible use of antipersonnel mines.”
The United States has limited use of white phosphorous and napalm in areas where civilians are present, though used them in Vietnam, in the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria. Richard M. Nixon signed a treaty banning biological and toxic weapons in the 1970s. Bill Clinton signed a treaty banning the use or stockpiling of chemical weapons.
Human rights groups that monitor such things say the State Department under Trump has become less active in yearly meetings about limiting weapons. And we know that Trump has withdrawn the United States from various international agreements governing intermediate range missiles; a renewal of limits involving long-range missiles is pending.
The Trump administration has been vocal about withdrawal from “endless wars,” but has acted when it sees fit, as in the recent attack killing Iranian Gen. Qasem Solemani, an action that threated to widen hostilities with Iran before everyone took a deep breath. Likewise, the administration has withdrawn U.S. troops from areas of Iraq where allied Kurdish forces faced invasion from Turkey, has both invited and walked away from talks to end conflict in Afghanistan, and has sent thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia to help protect oil fields.
Trump has trumpeted having a strong military. Just what we do with it ought to be a larger part of what Democrats debate.