The President Draws a Line

There is still time.In the first week of December, countries of the world will gather in Ottawa to sign the treaty banning anti-personnel land mines unless a public outcry proves insurmountable. It looks like the United States will be absent -- joining Russia and China, among the main villains in the use of land mines.In refusing to sign the treaty, President Clinton spoke of "a line I simply cannot cross." But that line is not really one protecting America. It is the line bordering a political minefield that would pit the White House against the Pentagon leadership.The President himself called for the elimination of anti-personnel land mines in September 1994. Since then, mounting international pressure has forced an accord to eliminate these "hidden killers." An estimated 25,000 innocent civilians annually fall victim to these devices, which are littered around battlefields and areas of unrest worldwide. Given the humanitarian toll, the military necessity of possessing and using them doesn't stack up.To be fair, U.S. mines are hardly the problem. Yet over the last three years, the U.S. government has made itself the center of ban debate, watering down its own praiseworthy objectives with an endless stream of exceptions. Now at the eleventh hour, it has opted out of the treaty altogether, professing that the country is militarily dependent on mines.In claiming that the United States "relies" on mines, the White House voices three hesitations about the treaty text -- mines would be banned from Korea, antitank mines might be jeopardized, and the treaty lacks the nine-year transition period that Washington says is essential to develop "alternatives."On the Korean peninsula, President Clinton says land mines are a "strong deterrent," protecting 37,000 American troops tasked with stopping a North Korean invasion of one million soldiers poised just 30 miles from the South Korean capitol at Seoul.But mines are not a deterrent -- overwhelming U.S. military superiority is. This superiority -- in equipment, training, and motivation -- was demonstrated in the Gulf War. What is more, the U.S. military is made up of more than just troops. Air and naval power, also displayed with utter supremacy in Desert Storm, augment and support ground forces. Add in the fact that the United States is part of coalition with South Korea and other nations. The sum is far greater than the parts.To be sure invasions must be thwarted at the DMZ, but the true deterrent is the certainty that Pyongyang and the regime will be defeated. Why play discredited Cold War numbers games to sell an argument that the U.S. must have mines? Why ignore all the new realities of modern joint warfare?The second element in the American refusal to sign the treaty involves a dispute over an air-delivered bomb called the "Gator" that dispenses antitank and anti-personnel mines. As airpower has proven itself an equal partner to land armies in military operations, it has acquired just such devastating weapons.But here's the rub: A White House fact sheet issued with the President's decision calls the anti-personnel mines delivered by Gator "anti-handling devices." If these non-mine mines are banned, the effectiveness of the antitank mines will be stripped away.Beyond the semantic stench, the question is, how essential is Gator anyway? President Clinton says it "protected" the right flank of the U.S. VII Corps in its left hook maneuver in the Gulf War. And as the mines are self-deactivating, they "do not present a threat to the civilian population after hostilities have ended."Both arguments are false. Gator mines had nothing to do with protecting the Corp's left flank in the ground war. To the left of the U.S. VII Corps was another U.S. Corps! And they faced defeated Iraqi forces that had already felt the full brunt of combined arms warfare.In reality, Gators were mostly used to try to impede Scud missile launchers on the roads in western and southeastern Iraq. And, in reality, hundreds of Iraqi civilians have been killed and injured from the remains of these very "self- deactivating" weapons since the war.Indeed, on the battlefield, Gators and other cluster bombs proved as threatening to U.S. forces as to the intended enemy. The official after-action report of the 1st Infantry Division expressed grave concern about virtual "minefields" created by U.S. weapons. Had it conducted dismounted assaults, the division says, "casualties would have been even higher." The VII Corps lead unit, the 1st Squadron-4th Cavalry, reported similarly that U.S. sowed cluster bombs "posed severe problems" for soldiers and wheeled vehicles, making refueling and rearming "extremely hazardous."The White House has shown little stomach for questioning or validating the Pentagon's claims. Now President Clinton repeats hesitations about military capabilities that totally contradict a true portrayal of American strength and battlefield agility. All this to avoid picking a fight with the generals.William M. Arkin is author of 10 books on military matters and a consultant to the Human Rights Watch Arms Project.

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