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Veterans Wage Air War Against Land Mines
Published on Tuesday, April 9, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Veterans Wage Air War Against Land Mines
TV campaign encircles Bush policymakers with ads urging U.S. to sign worldwide ban
by Edward Epstein
WASHINGTON -- The campaign to ban land mines from the world is spending about $1.5 million on an ad campaign to get its message across to just a handful of people at the highest reaches of the Bush administration.

Those outside Washington have never seen the stark 30-second commercial broadcast repeatedly on cable TV in the capital area. The spot intercuts scenes of happy children playing hopscotch with victims of anti-personnel land mines. It urges President Bush to sign the 1997 Ottawa treaty banning the use, stockpiling, production and sale of the small, cheap bombs that have cost millions of people a limb or their lives.

"We're stepping up fast and hard to make sure the people in the White House understand there's a constituency out there for this," said Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which raised the money for the ad.

Muller's effort is typical of how many lobbying efforts are carried out in Washington, where millions of dollars are spent on broadcast and print ads aimed not at a mass audience but at influencing the decisions of the few and the powerful -- the president, Congress and government agencies.

"This is a political decision the White House is going to make," Muller said. That's the reason the anti-land mine campaign persuaded 124 members of the House of Representatives, including many of the Bay Area's liberal Democrats, to sign a letter asking Bush to join the leaders of 140 other nations who have already signed the treaty banning "dumb" mines that are set off when a person or animal steps on them.

Even the NBC-TV series "West Wing," which tries to feature hot political topics in its fictional White House, included the land mine debate in a recent episode.

Former President Bill Clinton, faced with opposition from American military leaders, didn't sign the treaty. Instead, he said the U.S. would sign by 2006 if new defensive technologies could be found to protect American soldiers in heavily armed places like the 150-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide Korean demilitarized zone.

One of the most heavily mined pieces of land in the world, the DMZ separates North Korea's army along the 38th parallel from the 37,000 U.S. soldiers in South Korea.

A decision by the Bush White House about the mine treaty was expected before the terrorist attacks of last September, but it was postponed and now could come any time. The president's bent toward unilateral American positions in foreign policy has been tempered since last Sept. 11 by the need to maintain an international coalition against terrorism, which might influence his decision.

Muller points out that America's NATO partners have signed the treaty. The United States hasn't produced anti-personnel mines since 1997, exported any since 1992 or planted any since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and it has been destroying most of its stockpile. It also has been paying millions of dollars to clean up mines sown in countries such as Afghanistan and Cambodia, where thousands of civilians have been killed or injured by mines years after wars have ended.

"I think we have a better chance with Bush," a conservative Republican, than with Democrat Clinton, Muller said, because Bush "has established his bona fides as a wartime president" and could afford to tell the military the mines must go.

But to the treaty's opponents, these arguments miss a few key points.

There are still 14 countries that either produce mines or won't sign the treaty, including major powers Russia and China, and smaller nations such as Israel, which is surrounded by hostile states.

India and Pakistan, at loggerheads over the disputed territory of Kashmir, also won't sign.

And there's North Korea.

The classified Pentagon review reportedly has advised Bush not to sign the treaty and to maintain the right to use anti-personnel mines for commando-like special operations.

"Mines can be a vital tool in the hands of our military," said Baker Spring, a military analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "These arms- control advocates focus on civilian casualties, which are horrible, but hardly any are caused by U.S.-laid mines.

"No civilian is going to be wandering around willy-nilly in the Korean DMZ."

Spring also said that despite good intentions, international bans on weapons wouldn't work unless there was universal compliance. "Is it wise for the United States to sign a treaty banning weapons that other countries will continue to use?" Spring asked.

Also, he said, for all the talk of options to using mines along the DMZ, none has been found that the U.S. military considers reliable.

Muller countered that the treaty doesn't ban bigger, anti-tank mines and allows the use of command-controlled mines, which can be turned on during periods of high alert, then turned off by remote control.

If Bush doesn't sign the treaty, Muller warned, things will turn ugly.

"If he doesn't agree, we're going to go nuts and make it more personal," Muller said.

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle


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