U.S. takes the lead on behalf of cluster bombs

After long refusing to join the convention banning these weapons, Obama now works to overturn it

Published November 12, 2011 4:16PM (EST)

Slightly more than two months after he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama secretly ordered a cruise missile attack on Yemen, using cluster bombs, which killed 44 innocent civilians, including 14 women and 21 children, as well as 14 people alleged to be "militants." It goes without saying that -- unless you want Rick Perry to win in 2012 -- this act should in no way be seen as marring Obama's presidency or his character: what's a couple dozen children blown up as a part of a covert, undeclared air war? If anything, as numerous Democrats have ecstatically celebrated, such acts show how Tough and Strong the Democrats are: after all, ponder the massive amounts of nobility and courage it takes to sit in the Oval Office and order this type of aggression on defenseless tribal regions in Yemen. As R.W. Appel put it on the front page of The New York Times back in 1989 when glorifying George H.W. Bush's equally courageous invasion of Panama: "most American leaders since World War II have felt a need to demonstrate their willingness to shed blood" and doing so has become "a Presidential initiation rite."

But one aspect of the December, 2009, attack that perhaps did merit some more critical scrutiny was the use of cluster bombs, weapons which "scatter hundreds of bomblets over a large area but with limited accuracy and high failure rates." The inevitability of "duds" -- "unexploded ordnance" -- poses a great risk to civilians, often well after the conflict has ended, since -- like land mines -- they often detonate when stumbled into by children and other innocents long after they disperse. According to the Cluster Munitions Coalition, cluster bombs "caused more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system." As Wired pointed out, while the U.S. used these weapons in both Iraq and Afghanistan, "neither the Taliban nor Saddam used cluster bombs against U.S. troops." And here is how the Council on Foreign Relations describes the impact these weapons had in the 2006 Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon:

They left dozens dead or maimed on both sides of the conflict. The reason . . . is because the “fighting in southern Lebanon was often in villages and towns where people were living.” Israel dropped up to four million submunitions on Lebanese soil, one million of which remain unexploded “duds,” according to the UN Mine Action Coordination Center. Throughout the thirty-four-day conflict, the United States resupplied Israel’s arsenal of cluster bombs, which prompted an investigation by the State Department to examine if Israel had violated secret agreements it signed with the United States governing their use. Hezbollah, meanwhile, fired thousands of cluster munitions—a Chinese-made Type 81 122mm rocket—into northern Israel, a number of which targeted civilian populations, according to human rights groups.

Given how indiscriminate and civilian-threatening these weapons are, more than 100 countries have signed a treaty banning their production and use and compelling compensation to their victims. Needless to say, the U.S. has categorically refused to join the Convention, along with the other biggest stockpilers of these weapons, such as Russia, Israel and China. The Obama administration's refusal to join the Convention has caused tension and controversy even with its most subservient allies, such as Britian, a signatory to the treaty. The British Parliament had insisted that the U.S. rid itself of all cluster munitions at American bases on British soil, but a WikiLeaks cable revealed that "British and American officials colluded in a plan to hoodwink parliament" through "the use of a loophole to manoeuvre around the ban and allow the US to keep the munitions on British territory."

But now the Obama administration is moving far beyond a mere refusal to join the convention banning these munitions. According to The Independent, the U.S. is playing the leading role "to torpedo the global ban on cluster bombs" through a "proposal that would permit the use of cluster bombs as long as they were manufactured after 1980 and had a failure rate of less than one per cent." The paper also reports that despite Britain's long-time role in supporting the ban, its conservative government is now backing the Obama administration's efforts to codify their use. The Pentagon claims that newer cluster bombs can be used more safely, but activists have documented that "many modern cluster bombs have far higher failure rates on the field of battle than manufacturers claim."

So it isn't only massively increased, secret drone attacks in numerous Muslim countries around the world that will be an enduring foreign policy legacy of the Obama presidency. Nor will it be merely the death knell of the War Powers Resolution from his prosecution of the war in Libya even in the face of a Congressional vote against its authorization, nor the continuation and -- in some cases expansion -- of the most controversial Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies. We will also be ensured of living in a world where the use of cluster bombs continues unabated.

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Speaking of Change:

Don Rumsfeld, November 21, 2002, on Iraq: "All I can say is if history has taught anything, it's that weakness is provocative. It entices people into doing things that they otherwise would not do."

Bill Kristol, July 24, 2006, on Iran and Syria: "We have done a poor job of standing up to them and weakening them. They are now testing us more boldly than one would have thought possible a few years ago. Weakness is provocative."

Leon Panetta, yesterday: "Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been steadily escalating his warnings about the impact of the deep cuts facing the Pentagon if the congressional super committee fails to reach a deal. On Thursday, he played the last – and strongest -- card in his deck, arguing that the hundreds of billions of dollars of mandatory cuts would directly imperil U.S. national security. . . . Mandatory defense cuts, he warned, would weaken the armed forces to the point that enemies would be emboldened to attack the U.S. 'In effect, it invites aggression,' Panetta said during the new conference, just his second since taking office in July."

Yes, President Obama's Defense Secretary is actually running around the country trying to scare Americans into believing that if the U.S. cuts military spending, then the nation will be attacked. After all, weakness is provocative, just like Rumsfeld and Kristol have long taught us. I have no doubt that this is the same reason we must have cluster bombs: if we no longer have them, we will be overrun by hordes of aggressive invaders. Is that something that you want? I doubt it: so you better support cluster bombs and demand that your Social Security benefits and other domestic services -- rather than military spending -- be cut.

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I apologize for the ongoing confusion over the Kindle version of With Liberty and Justice for Some, but I am happy to report that the Kindle version is, for real this time, available for immediate downloading on Amazon, here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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