Today, there are no fewer than three different inquiries under way aimed at assessing shortfalls in what the military calls “force protection” that led to the death and wounding of scores of American sailors and the near loss of their ship, the USS Cole. When all is said and done, heads will likely roll, as otherwise unblemished records of service and command are destroyed over the failure to provide adequately for the security of our uniformed personnel as they went into harm’s way in service to their country.
This tragic reminder of the vulnerability of the men and women in uniform and the solemn responsibility their leaders civilian and military have to ensure they are not unnecessarily put at risk comes to mind as one considers a letter sent to President Clinton on Oct. 5 by more than 90 members of Congress. In this missive, the predominantly liberal Democratic signatories called on Mr. Clinton before leaving office to deny ground-based American troops one of the most tested and dependable means of force protection ever invented: anti-personnel landmines (APL).
Specifically, this group led by Reps. Lane Evans, Illinois Democrat, and Jack Quinn, New York Republican, appeal to the president “before leaving office” to take such steps as: “announcing a permanent ban, or at least a moratorium, on the production of APLs and their components”; “deciding not to produce the RADAM mixed mine system [which employs anti-personnel devices to prevent the rapid neutralizing of accompanying anti-vehicle landmines]”; and “placing in inactive status” existing APLs immediately, “with the intent to destroy as soon as possible.”
To be sure, most if not all of these members of Congress are motivated by the plight of the thousands of innocent civilians all over the world who are harmed each year by so-called “dumb,” long-duration APLs. Frequently, they are terribly maimed, rather than killed outright, by landmines left behind from wars long past. These victims become burdens on their usually impoverished families and communities, and are vivid reminders of obscene efforts by earlier combatants to “cleanse” contested territory of rival ethnic, religious or other communities.
Unfortunately, such legislators and most of those whose heartstrings are similarly pulled by the ongoing blight APLs represent in places like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bosnia, Angola and Nicaragua fail to appreciate a basic reality: Banning the responsible use by the American military of short-duration, self-destructing anti-personnel landmines will not contribute in any way to the enormous humanitarian challenge of finding and destroying what are estimated to be many millions of APLs already in the ground around the world. The only exception to the ban would be the Korean Demilitarized Zone, where “dumb” APLs are deployed in a no-man’s land barred to civilians and are critical to deterring any renewed North Korean aggression against the South.
A ban whether imposed unilaterally or via U.S. enrollment in the 1997 Ottawa Convention that prohibits the “use, stockpiling, production and transfer of APLs would, however, ensure that American troops forward-deployed in dangerous parts of the world would be denied a tool understood by them and their military commanders to be absolutely essential to force protection. In fact, it was the unprecedented unanimous and forceful opposition in 1997 of every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and every regional regional commander in chief to the Ottawa Convention that dissuaded President Clinton from signing on. This was all the more remarkable since he had been, as noted in the legislators’ letter, “The very first world leader to call for the eventual elimination of all landmines in [his] 1994 address before the United Nations General Assembly.”
As it happens, the congressional correspondence unintentionally underscores how irrelevant the U.S. armed forces’ retention of the ability to employ APLs for force protection and in support of combat operations is to the problem at hand. The legislators note, notwithstanding American refusal to join the Ottawa ban, that: “Exports of APLs have slowed to a trickle. The number of new mine victims is decreasing in heavily infested nations… . Global funding for mine clearance programs has increased greatly, and funding for victim assistance programs is also on the rise, although at a slower pace than demand requires.”
In other words, things that can make a difference vis-a-vis the humanitarian problem are going forward. That said, it is not clear the progress is quite as great as claimed (particularly with respect to exports of landmines, an activity that can be and almost certainly is being pursued covertly by countries like China that profit greatly from manufacturing “dumb” landmines for a dollar or so apiece).
It would have been appropriate, if out of character for most of the congressional signatories, to note that much of the progress that is being made is a function of very substantial efforts on the part of the American military. The latter’s help with demining and the development of new technologies holds promise that the effectiveness of such efforts will continue to increase, while the inherent risks are greatly reduced. (On the latter front there has been a possible breakthrough, thanks to the private development of a technology dubbed the ELF system now being tested in the field in Croatia and Cambodia.)
Regrettably, the zealots bent on banning landmines are not swayed by such inconvenient facts. They are typically indifferent to force protection considerations or assert blithely that they can be addressed by some new, as-yet-unidentified technology. They subscribe to the “disarm the one you’re with” school; America must adhere to the “international norm” they believe they are creating, irrespective of whether it is real, verifiable or responsible for the U.S. do so.
The pressure is on now, as they fear a President George W. Bush would sensibly want no part of a landmine ban opposed by his armed forces and likely to cost them dearly in unnecessary loss of life and perhaps successful missions in future overseas operations. The question is: Will the lameduck Bill Clinton try with respect to APLs to do what he is working on in so many other areas from normalizing relations with rogue states like North Korea and Cuba, to euchring Israel into a phony and highly dangerous peace deal with the Palestinians, to giving the Chinese renewed access to American missile-related technology namely, pre-empting his successor?
If Mr. Clinton gets away with it on landmines, the inquiries into the failure of force protection that are sure to arise down the road will be obliged to hold him, and his congressional correspondents, responsible.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.