Cluster bombs to Ukraine: War anxiety rises among Democrats

Biden's decision to send banned weapons to Ukraine won't change the war. But it's starting to alienate progressives

Published July 16, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden | The remains of artillery shells and missiles including cluster munitions are stored on December 18, 2022 in Toretsk, Ukraine. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden | The remains of artillery shells and missiles including cluster munitions are stored on December 18, 2022 in Toretsk, Ukraine. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

President Biden may have crossed a new red line for the Democratic Party when he announced he would send banned cluster munitions to shore up Ukraine's slow counter-offensive against Russian troops. 

Last week, 19 House Democrats, led by Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., signed a letter to Biden warning that his decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine "severely undermines our moral leadership." 

This time it's not just left-leaning activists in CODEPINK and the Peace in Ukraine Coalition who recoil at Biden's escalation in Ukraine, but congressional Democrats who previously stood by their president. These are the same Democrats who voted to approve more than $100 billion in Ukraine spending, approximately half of which went for weapons and military assistance with no accountability.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told Politico, "The decision by the Biden administration to transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine is unnecessary and a terrible mistake. …The legacy of cluster bombs is misery, death and expensive cleanup generations after their use."

Last weekend, other prominent Democrats took to the airwaves, with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the party's 2016 vice-presidential nominee, telling Fox News he had "real qualms" about the president's decision. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations — and now a U.S. Senate candidate — told CNN, "Cluster bombs should never be used. That's crossing a line." Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and former Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who visited Vietnam following the U.S. withdrawal, joined the chorus with a Washington Post op-ed explaining that they had witnessed first-hand the "devastating and long-lasting effects these weapons have had on civilians." 

Even before the official White House cluster bomb announcement, Reps. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., introduced an amendment to the 2024 military budget to ban the issuance of export licenses for cluster munitions.  

Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who is ranking member of the House Rules Committee, was one of the first to co-sponsor the bill. McGovern told the New York Times that cluster munitions "disperse hundreds of bomblets, which can travel far beyond military targets and injure, maim and kill civilians — often long after a conflict is over."

That amendment, however, will need overwhelming bipartisan support to pass — as well as a President who will obey the law should the ayes have it.

In greenlighting the provision of cluster munitions to Ukraine, Biden thumbed his nose at 18 NATO partners who had joined with more than 100 other state parties to sign the 2008 UN Convention on Cluster Munitions. As Biden headed to Vilnius, Lithuania, for the NATO summit last week, Newsweek reported that officials in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Spain were not on board with sending cluster bombs to Kyiv.

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Biden has also chosen to bypass current U.S. law that prohibits the use of cluster munitions with a failure-to-detonate rate of 1 percent or more. In its last publicly available estimate, the Pentagon estimated a "dud rate" of 6% for its cluster bombs, meaning that roughly four of the 72 submunitions (or "bomblets") within each shell failed to explode when unleashed. 

With a bow to hawkish Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Biden has invoked an exception to the "dud rate" rule embedded in the statute, which allows for shipment of cluster munitions in the interest of vital national security.

The balance of power between Russian and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region hardly ranks as an issue of U.S. national security on the same level with mitigating the threat of climate catastrophe, providing clean water to those with lead in their pipes or investing in housing for unsheltered people who live under freeway overpasses.

Nonetheless, the same Joe Biden who a year ago warned the world of the risk of nuclear Armageddon has reversed himself yet again and agreed to up the ante in Ukraine. Biden first said no to a host of weapons and then flip-flopped: Stinger missiles, HIMARS rocket launchers, advanced missile defense systems, M1 Abrams tanks, F-16 fighter jets. Each one of these has been a mini-round of Russian roulette, in an almost literal sense, an attempt to test Vladimir Putin's "red lines." 

Biden's decision is a likely sign of desperation in the face of Ukraine's counteroffensive. But this dangerous new weapon will not miraculously break the stalemate and achieve a glorious military victory.

With Biden's latest decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine, anti-nuclear activists wonder whether the president — whose nuclear posture review does not rule out the possibility of "first use"— might also cross the nuclear red line, even though it's Putin who has repeatedly issued veiled nuclear threats. In June of 2021, both presidents signed a statement that said, "Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." 

The impetus for the 2008 landmark UN Convention on Cluster Munitions came precisely from the indiscriminate U.S. use of these weapons in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. In Laos, the U.S. military blanketed the country with almost 300 million bomblets, many of which failed to detonate immediately — but did so later, after the U.S. withdrawal, sometimes maiming adults and children who stepped on them accidentally or picked up the shiny balls thinking they were toys. 

Both Ukraine and Russia have already used cluster bombs in Ukraine, a development roundly condemned by human rights groups who have documented the resulting deaths and serious injuries of civilians. The hundreds of thousands of rounds Biden now plans to send would significantly increase the use of these banned weapons. 

Biden's decision is a likely sign of desperation in the face of Ukraine's counteroffensive in the south and east, which has so far failed to gain much ground. Biden told CNN it was a "difficult decision" but said Ukraine was "running out of ammunition." The truth is that adding this dangerous new weapon will not miraculously break the stalemate and achieve a glorious military victory. But we can virtually guarantee that unexploded bombs will kill and wound Ukrainian civilians for years to come, and their use now may encourage other countries to violate the cluster munitions ban.

Rather than escalating an arms race to risk nuclear war, the Biden administration should consider promoting a ceasefire that will bring all parties in this conflict to the negotiating table without preconditions. Instead of breaking international law, the U.S. should break the military stalemate by joining the global call for a diplomatic resolution in Ukraine.


By Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CODEPINK for Peace and author of several books, including "Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran." She and Nicolas J.S. Davies are the authors of "War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict."

MORE FROM Medea Benjamin

By Marcy Winograd

Marcy Winograd is the Coordinator of CODEPINK Congress and co-chair of the foreign policy team for Progressive Democrats of America.

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Cluster Bombs Cluster Munitions Commentary Democrats Joe Biden Russia Ukraine War