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A Cluster of Fallacies

by Daniel Allen

Well over half the world's governments agreed last week to "consign cluster munitions to the trash bin of history," in the words of the Cluster Munition Coalition, the civil society collective that delivered the treaty. Meeting in Dublin, Ireland, representatives of 110 governments completed negotiations on a new international treaty that bans the production, use, and export of all existing cluster munitions and commits them to destroy their stockpiles within eight years.

The U.S. government did not attend the negotiations, instead arm-twisting its allies to weaken the treaty. In the end, though, all other major NATO countries joined with the majority in agreeing to get rid of these weapons, which are designed to kill or maim every living thing in an area as large as two football fields. The vast majority of victims of cluster bombs have been civilians.

Stephen Mull, Acting Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs, held a press briefing in the midst of the negotiations to explain why the U.S. government was not at the table. His explanations were creative.

If the convention passes in its current form, any U.S. military ship would be technically not able to get involved in a peacekeeping operation, in providing disaster relief or humanitarian assistance as we're doing right now in the aftermath of the earthquake in China and the typhoon in Burma, and not to mention everything that we did in Southeast Asia after the tsunami in December of 2004. And that's because most U.S. military units have in their inventory these kinds of weapons.

A reporter astutely asked Mull why it wasn't possible to "just take the munitions off your ships?" Mull responded:

Well, we -- the number one priority of any country's military is to defend its country. And if our military planners are determined that these are necessary to protect American interests, we -- it's not something that we're going to unilaterally get rid of.

The cluster bomb treaty would be unilateral...except for the other 110 countries that also agreed to abandon cluster bombs in Dublin.

And why are cluster munitions a necessary defense? Mull again had an answer:

These [cluster munitions] are weapons that have a certain military utility and are of use. The United States relies on them as an important part of our own defense strategy.

When the media inexplicably pushed back, asking what, exactly, this military utility was, Mull ruled out some possibilities:

How many wars like that is the United States going to be in, in the foreseeable future. My personal guess is probably not a lot. I don't think we have that kind of threat from Canada or Mexico, by the way, for example.

No doubt the Canadian and Mexican governments are reassured to hear that the United States does not plan to go to war with them anytime soon.

Finally, Mull concluded his circumnavigation around the question of the military utility of cluster munitions by conceding:

The United States hasn't used them [cluster munitions] in the conflicts we're involved in since 2003, during the intervention in Iraq.... But the issue is, is that the United States is a global power. We have global responsibilities and global alliance relationships. And I don't think we could rule out that other conflicts that our allies might be involved with in the future, which we would be required to respond to. For example, let's say an invasion of South Korea or some other -- let's say a war that breaks out and -- or let's say Syria invades Lebanon, God forbid, that that happens, I mean, it's not entirely impossible that there could be a conflict like that in which we would be responsible for helping for the defense of our ally in which the weapons would be needed.

Mull might want to consult with the Lebanese government before using cluster bombs in Lebanon to defend against a Syrian invasion. They do have some experience with the weapons. Just two years ago, Lebanon became one of the most heavily cluster-bombed countries in the world when Israel launched around four million submunitions into southern Lebanon. Unexploded remnants still litter the countryside, claiming the lives and limbs of hundreds while making the cultivation of large swathes of land perilous. Given this reality, one cannot imagine a scenario in which using cluster munitions would serve to "protect" the Lebanese -- rather, it would seem to do just the opposite.

Sadly, this press briefing was not a work of creative fiction but a serious attempt to outline U.S. military policy. With the world watching, the U.S. government trotted out an incoherent series of justifications designed to confuse the debate. It was bad enough that the United States was AWOL from the negotiations. It can't even provide a good excuse for its absence.

Daniel Allen is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) and a legislative program assistant on conventional weapons at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (www.fcnl.org).

Copyright © 2008, Institute for Policy Studies

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