Collateral damage (US)
America won't sign a treaty banning cluster bombs. But can it use them now?
IMAGINE a new war involving NATO. At the combined air-operations centre, the Americans want to destroy a concentration of enemy forces, or a column of vehicles, with cluster bombs, which rain bomblets over a wide area. The tactic has often been used in American-led operations, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This time, though, several European allies have signed a treaty banning the use of cluster bombs; they have vowed not to "assist" others in using cluster munitions and pledged to make their "best efforts to discourage" their use. What would happen in the heat of battle? Would allied commanders bicker over the legality of the weapons; would Europeans turn a blind eye to their use by America (through a separate American chain of command), accepting the political opprobrium that would follow; or would America yield to its allies' qualms and choose a different weapon, perhaps a big bomb?
Nobody really knows. The treaty was signed in Oslo on December 4th by 94 countries-among them American allies like Britain, Germany, France, Japan and even, unexpectedly, Afghanistan. It includes an exemption for signatories to conduct operations alongside non-signatories, such as America, that "might engage in activities prohibited" by the treaty. NATO says the clause provides the necessary flexibility for all sides to operate together.
Legally this may be so, but the issue is political: the price of using cluster munitions has been raised. "We are pretty confident that it's going to be extremely difficult for the United States to use cluster munitions in future," says Thomas Nash, co- ordinator of the Cluster Munition Coalition, an umbrella body of groups wanting a ban. At the signing ceremony in Oslo, Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, said the treaty set a new global norm. One Western diplomat says the weapons could now be used only "in extremis".
The Convention on Cluster Munitions, negotiated in Dublin in May, is a natural successor to the 1997 convention to ban landmines. Opponents of cluster munitions say they are an indiscriminate weapon when they go off; and that unexploded bomblets turn the target area into a virtual minefield. The unstable explosives are often brightly coloured; this is supposed to warn adults, but attracts children, who may be killed or maimed.
Mr Nash says there is "a nice little race" to be among the first 30 countries whose ratification would bring the treaty into force (four did so immediately). Britain is among those that have started destroying stockpiles; it has asked America to remove cluster munitions stored in Britain within the treaty's eight-year deadline.
As with the landmine ban, America stands with Russia and China in opposing the move to outlaw cluster munitions. Other holdouts include countries nervous of Russia, like Poland and Finland, and states that fear future wars, like Israel, Egypt, Syria and the Koreas. Russia, which used cluster munitions in its war with Georgia (which also used them), opposes "unjustified restrictions" on the weapons.
For American officials, the treaty is self-righteous nonsense. They say its impact could be "perverse" if it makes countries use bigger bombs and more of them. They insist that the impact on operations with allies could be "quite bad" and that solving this problem will require political will.
Still, America has had to give ground. It voices sympathy with the humanitarian motives of the treaty. Last July the Pentagon set out a new policy to get rid of cluster weapons by 2018 if they have a failure rate greater than 1%. America wants a similar protocol to be adopted by all countries at the United Nations' talks on a Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
Lobby groups hope Barack Obama will back the treaty. As a senator in 2006, he backed a failed move to stop the weapons being used near civilians. His team says he will "carefully review" the treaty. Yet Mr Obama has asked Robert Gates to stay on as defence secretary. One Pentagon insider says Mr Obama will find it hard to change American policy once he realises that cluster munitions make up more than half the country's bomb stockpile.
Von: 11.12.2008, www.economist.com