Newsreal: Tripping on Landmines

According to supporters, the U.S. refusal to sign an agreement banning the devices is a case of the Pentagon running roughshod on the President.

Published September 18, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"It's a shame that Clinton couldn't stand up to the Pentagon on this," said Jill Greenberg of the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines.

"When we look back in history at previous presidents, like President Kennedy, who fought the Pentagon and got a nuclear test ban enacted, and President Ronald Reagan, who faced up to the generals and started what became the chemicals weapons ban, it's really disappointing that Bill Clinton isn't able to show the same kind of leadership and statesmanship."

Such was the reaction, in the United States and around the world, to President Clinton's announcement Wednesday that the U.S. will not sign a treaty banning the kind of land mines that kills tens of thousands of people each year, mostly civilians. Eighty-nine other countries signed the treaty, rejecting U.S. demands that it be substantially modified before the U.S. signed it. "We were not prepared to pay any price" for America's signature, said Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has led a congressional campaign for an unconditional ban on anti-personnel mines, said he would push ahead with a legislative prohibition and called the use of the weapons a "war crime."

The treaty emerged from negotiations in Oslo, Norway, where representatives from more than 100 countries met for the past three weeks to hammer it into its final form. Clinton sought exceptions that would have permitted the U.S. to deploy anti-personnel mines in South Korea, because of what Washington perceives as an unstable situation on the North Korean peninsula. He also sought an exemption for America's "smart" anti-personnel mines, which protect anti-tank mines, as well as a provision that would allow countries to withdraw from the treaty after a six-month waiting period if they were victims of aggression.

Clinton said the land mines currently used along the Demilitarized Zone in Korea were vital to protect some 30,000 U.S. troops there, and the treaty's immediate ban of those defenses constituted "a line that I simply cannot cross." But advocates of the treaty called the issue a "fig leaf for the Pentagon." Greenberg, who also works as an activist for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, a humanitarian organization that provides prosthetic devices to mine victims in the Third World, said anti-personnel mines are "a weapon that has been institutionalized, and the Pentagon is simply not willing to give it up."

The land mine ban has been something of a moral crusade for its supporters. The recent death of Princess Diana, who had led a high-profile campaign against land mines, energized the movement even more.

"What we heard in Oslo is that the humanitarian crisis caused by land mines is so immense that it was immoral for us to suggest that we might need some time to get ready," a senior administration official told Salon. "But we had to balance two interests" -- humanitarian concerns and security issues. The official, who was intimately involved with the Oslo negotiations, explained to Salon the administration's thinking behind the exemptions it sought.

He said the nine-year transition period that the Clinton Administration wanted before it stopped using land mines in Korea was designed to give the U.S. enough time to develop another weapons system to defend U.S. troops in the case of a massive North Korean infantry assault.

The official said the leading contender for an alternative system involves two kinds of drones, or pilotless aircraft. One drone would fly at an altitude of 40,000 feet to watch over American units maneuvering in battle, using highly sophisticated sensors. If the aircraft detected enemy forces moving on the Americans' exposed flank, a second drone, flying at 20,000 feet, would drop cluster bombs on the enemy. "So instead of the enemy walking into a minefield, it's dropped on them," the official said.

But he added that such systems are high-tech, exceedingly expensive and need time to make sure they work. "That's where the nine years came in," he said. "We just needed a reasonable time to adjust to a world in which our forces would be operating without anti-personnel land mines."

The official also said that a dispute over two words prevented agreement with treaty negotiators over the exemption Clinton sought for the anti-personnel mines the U.S. uses to protect its anti-tank mine defenses. As it is written, the treaty allows protective anti-personnel devices that are "attached to, part of, or placed under" anti-tank mines, which many other countries have. The American system is dropped from planes or fired from artillery, forming a tight pattern of anti-tank mines and surrounded by a concentric circle of anti-personnel mines with trip cords.

"We simply wanted to add the words, 'or near' to that, but they refused," the official said.

Leahy's bill would permanently ban the use of the mines by 1999, allowing an exemption for Korea until the year 2000. After that, the president would have to inform Congress annually if it wanted to extend the exemption. The bill has 60 co-sponsors in the Senate. A companion bill in the House, introduced by Reps. Lane Evens, D-Ill., and Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., has 145 co-sponsors.

If the legislation passes, said Greenberg of the U.S. Coalition to Ban Landmines, the anti-land mine community will be watching to see whether Clinton will veto it. "It will show who is making the decision around here -- Bill Clinton or the Pentagon," she said.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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