December 1, 2009  

A dangerous ban

Obama is right to be wary of signing the land mine treaty

A recent report indicated that President Barack Obama had finally made an important security policy-related decision — on whether his administration would seek to have the U.S. sign the treaty banning the production and use of anti-personnel land mines, a treaty that 156 other nations have signed.

First word was that the administration would not favor signing the treaty. Signing would require approval of two-thirds of the Senate, which is unlikely. More important, it is a bad treaty imposed primarily to hobble the U.S. and largely ineffective in achieving its nominal goal of eliminating land mines from warfare. But even this small bit of apparent Obama decisiveness found quick contradiction in a subsequent announcement that the administration’s review of the treaty was continuing. No profile in political courage here, as the treaty is much loved by the Left at home and abroad.

The treaty, which came into force in 1997, bans anti-personnel, victim-activated mines, including those that are timed — mines that deactivate after set durations such as eight hours or two days. Persistent land mines can kill or maim non-combatants long after the battle or even the conflict is over. The U.S. had largely moved away from using persistent, buried anti-personnel mines toward scatterable (largely artillery-delivered or air-dropped) systems of timed, nonpersistent mines. Perhaps comforted by the fact that its own forces were unlikely to be engaged in combat and thus in need the protection of land mines, the Canadian government, the prime mover behind the treaty, and other of America’s allies sought to deny the U.S. this technological advantage, making all anti-personnel, victim-activated mines illegal, persistent or not. Because nearly every member of NATO signed the treaty, the U.S. has had to abandon the use of its timed anti-personnel mines, even though it is not a signatory, because the treaty makes it a violation for signatories to join coalitions with anti-personnel mine users.

Mines are militarily useful. They can be used to delay or channel attacking enemy forces, to protect the flanks of friendly forces and to give soldiers in isolated posts a safe night’s sleep. Of course, the U.S. military has found workarounds to the ban. The U.S. now has weapons that provide systems of scatterable, networked mines with an observable, command detonation, perfectly legal under the treaty. A soldier observes a field of mines via computer link and can attack enemy forces as they move through it. The command link activates or terminates the field.

The treaty doesn’t stop the U.S., but it also doesn’t protect the innocents. China and Russia have not signed the treaty and still use buried, persistent mines. Arms dealers still offer long-lasting, victim-activated mines and, even if they did not, such mines are relatively easy to make as the spiraling use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) stands in testimony. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in clearing mines from past conflicts, but thousands of innocents still fall victim to this cheap terrorist tool. Not all IEDs are technically mines, and some that are command-detonated or anti-vehicle are legal under the treaty, but many groups throughout the world use pressure plates, trip wires and explosives to express their causes and kill or intimidate their opponents. Banned or not, mines are still a big part of modern conflict.

Then why not sign the treaty? If it doesn’t matter, why not make the symbolic political gesture? Because the treaty is the first step in a series in the activists’ agenda to constrain American conventional military capabilities, it is unwise to provide such an endorsement. Already in preparation is a treaty banning cluster weapons, which are used in area-denial or artillery fire-suppression missions and which involve the delivery via air or artillery of hundreds of bomblets over a wide area intended to explode on contact or at set heights. Because a very small percentage of the bomblets are duds, work goes on to make them 100 percent reliable to avoid a residual, minelike, persistent hazard on the battlefield.

Weapon bans are not a way to prevent wars. One-sided bans, like the anti-personnel land mine ban, are political theater intended to handicap only American soldiers. Murder and crime are not stopped by gun possession restrictions, and neither will war be stopped by weapon bans. Oppose the war, not the weapons. AFJ

HARVEY M. SAPOLSKY is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s political science department and was a member of the National Research Council’s committee that reviewed alternatives to land mines during the Clinton administration.