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The Mines in International Politics
by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
Despite broad international agreement on the importance of banning all anti-personnel mines, the United States announced that after 2010 it would discard only "dumb" anti-personnel mines . . . the U.S. decision makes clear that its cache of some 15 million "smart" mines will not end up on the trash heap.
In late February 2004, the Bush administration made a decision about its use of land mines that, again, flouted worldwide political consensus. Despite broad international agreement on the importance of banning all anti-personnel mines, the United States announced that after 2010 it would discard only "dumb" anti-personnel mines, that is, those that remain active indefinitely (the U.S. stockpile is estimated at 3 million). While much of the rest of the world already has agreed to cease using anti-personnel mines altogether, the U.S. decision makes clear that its cache of some 15 million "smart" mines will not end up on the trash heap.
At first glance, the Bush land mine policy looks like progress. Land mines are estimated to kill and maim as many as 20,000 people a year around the world. Using mines that are designed to deactivate after a period of time, called "smart" mines, will reduce those numbers. And, to its credit, the administration promised to spend $70 million – twice its previous commitment – for international mine-removal efforts.
But the Bush policy fails to meet the test of altruism or international leadership.
The administration argues that by requiring all U.S. land mines to include a self-destructive capability, it is responding to international humanitarian concerns. Because “smart” mines can be programmed to deactivate in, say, 30, 60, or 90 days, they won't remain an indefinite hazard to farmers or others who live and travel in former war zones. But unintended injuries won't be completely eliminated by smart land mines. In fact, in October 2003, more than 100 leading health professionals from across the country – including deans of medical schools, Nobel Laureates in medicine, and a former Surgeon General – all advised the government to join with the international community.
In 1997, the Ottawa Convention stipulated that committed signatories were to refuse to produce, use, stockpile, transfer or sell anti-personnel land mines (anti-vehicle land mines were not included). More than 150 countries have agreed to its terms, including all NATO members but the United States. Joining it as nonsignatories, as of October 2003, are such nations as Russia, China, North Korea, South Korea, Cuba, Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, India, Pakistan, and Singapore. Even the Clinton administration, which would not sign the Ottawa Convention, made a commitment to comply with it by 2006. In May 2001, eight senior, high-ranking, retired U.S. generals – including those who commanded in Korea and therefore know that mines have long been considered essential to the defense of South Korea – signed and sent a letter to President Bush urging him to join the Ottawa Convention. Yet, the Bush decision not only forsakes that step, it effectively reverses the Clinton promise. And it raises the prospect that other nations may decide that they should seek the technological ability to manufacture their own smart mines.
Not surprisingly, the Bush decision produced immediate criticism. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called it a "missed opportunity." Steve Goose, of Human Rights Watch, told the Washington Post that the Bush policy "is stunningly at odds with what's happening in the rest of the world, where governments and armies are giving up these weapons."
The Bush-Cheney team believes not only that it has a responsibility to vigorously assert U.S. interests globally, but that that is ultimately good for the world as well.
Those criticisms are merited. Yet, the Bush administration from its inception has approached seemingly all policy issues from a single frame of reference. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the world has witnessed an unusual power arrangement in international relations. The international environment is dominated by a sole hegemonic power, the United States, which by good fortune is beneficent in its impact on the globe. The Bush-Cheney team believes not only that it has a responsibility to vigorously assert U.S. interests globally, but that that is ultimately good for the world as well. The war on Iraq and the slow strangulation of the Aristide administration in Haiti were pieces of that plan. In their eyes, to voluntarily enter into international treaties that would constrict the ability of the United States to act in world politics would be to walk away from an opportunity that is rarely available to any power, let alone a force for good.
The U.S. position of dominance cannot last forever, and that fact is appreciated in the White House, which sees it as one more reason to act boldly now. But the window of opportunity that has so enticed the Bush team seems already to be closing. Some allies are withdrawing troops from the occupation forces in Iraq, and enmity, not to mention terrorist attacks, have only increased in many Islamic nations. Some costs of the government's narrow, selfish policies are beginning to be paid. Others will remain dormant for a while, like unexploded mines in the fields.
Joseph Wakelee-Lynch is a Witness contributing editor, and his regular online column is The View from Sardis . He lives in Berkeley, California, and may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .