- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

In the flood of news following John Kerry’s sweep in Super Tuesday, many lesser but significant stories got lost. One such was President Bush’s smart decision on dumb land mines. On Feb. 27, in a little-remarked statement, Mr. Bush restricted the use of anti-personnel land mines.

Consulting both security interests and humanitarian concerns, Mr. Bush drew upon the crucial distinction between smart and dumb land mines.

His new approach was promptly rejected by those who insist on banning all land mines everywhere and for all time. The lofty simplicity of this all-or-nothing stance has attracted support from Nobel laureates, the late Princess Diana and Hollywood stars.

Mr. Bush acknowledged the terrible toll of land mines left over from the Soviet assault on Afghanistan and other conflicts that together kill or maim thousands of civilians every year. Reportedly, he will propose a 50 percent increase in spending, up to $70 million in fiscal 2005, for mine-removal aid in more than 40 countries.

Neither Mr. Bush nor Congress is prepared endorse the March 9, 1999, Ottawa treaty banning production and use of all land mines, though 122 of the original 142 signatory states have ratified it. The U.S., Russia, China and several smaller states have neither signed nor ratified the treaty.

Many advocates of this treaty believe broad international agreements have a significant impact on the states that sign them. History suggests otherwise.

The land mine treaty evokes ghosts of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war as an “instrument of national policy.” That pact was signed by 62 governments, including Germany and Japan, whose leaders promptly plunged the world into war.

President Bill Clinton set a goal of eliminating all U.S. antipersonnel mines by 2006. But Mr. Bush favors retaining some types of land mines because he understands the crucial distinction between a dumb and sophisticated devise. A dumb mine explodes when a person steps on it during or after a conflict, and the casualty may be a hostile soldier or an innocent child.

In contrast, a smart mine is equipped with a timing device that shuts off or self-destructs after a specified period, rendering it harmless after the conflict is over or even before, depending on how the timer is set.

Of the Pentagon’s 18 million land mines, 15 million are of the smart self-destruct variety. Our stockpile is about one-third that of comparable stockpiles in China and Russia.

The U.S. has not used land mines in combat since the 1991 Persian Gulf war. But it does use them in the highly fortified Demilitarized Zone to deter North Korea from invading South Korea. At present, many or most of these devices are dumb mines, but even so they pose a threat only to invading troops across the world’s most dangerous border. In due course, the dumb mines will be replaced by smart ones.

So far, the U.S. mine fields in Korea have been instruments of peace. They pose no threat to civilians of either side.

Elsewhere, in conflicts around the world, Mr. Bush is committed to using only smart bombs to spare innocent lives. Further, within a year, all U.S. land mines will contain at least 8 grams of iron so they can be detected by mine sweeping equipment. Mr. Bush’s balance between humanitarian concerns and security requirements is wholly consistent with past U.S. efforts to control these controversial weapons.

In 1980, at the U.N.-sponsored Geneva convention “on the use of mines, bobby-traps and other devices,” Washington took the lead in drafting Protocol II, now in force. The protocol doesn’t attempt to abolish mines, but rather to control them. Its prohibitions, virtually taken from the U.S. Military Code, include three practical constraints:

(1) Mines may be used only for specific military objectives.

(2) Mine fields in populated areas must post warnings for civilians in all relevant languages.

(3) The precise location of all mines must be carefully mapped and the information given to authorities after hostilities.

President Bush’s practical and humane efforts will to save lives and protect U.S. interests, but it will not satisfy the those who insist on the unattainable goal of abolishing by treaty all land mines everywhere.

Ernest W. Lefever is senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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