Politics & Policy

Obama Says No to Landmines

Army 25th Combat Aviation Brigade soldiers in Afghanistan, March 2012 (US Army)
The president is denying the U.S. armed forces a crucial weapon.

On March 6, 2014, America’s highest-ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, called anti-personnel landmines (APLs) “an important tool in the arsenal of the armed forces of the United States.” Yesterday, President Obama banned the armed forces from using them.

Why? To comply with a treaty — the Ottawa Convention — that the United States hasn’t even ratified. The U.S. Senate has not given its advice and consent to the treaty, but the Obama administration still feels compelled, in the words of a State Department spokesman, to “underscore its commitment to the spirit and humanitarian aims of the Ottawa Convention.”

In doing this, the president has effectively denied our troops the use of weapons that could help reduce U.S. casualties and help our military prevail in future conflicts. It’s not just General Dempsey who thinks so. Two major studies — one conducted by the National Research Council (NRC) and the other by NATO — concluded that APLs provide crucial tactical advantages on the battlefield.

The NRC report quoted General Wesley Clark as saying, when he was head of U.S. European Command, that “our field commanders count on [APLs] to protect the force, influence maneuver, shape the battlespace, and mass combat power for decisive engagement.” General Clark also noted that the need for APLs was not waning. Rather, he said, the need for them was “increasing in light of evolving and future operational concepts that envision our forces conducting dispersed operations over expanded battlespace.”

Pshaw, says the Obama administration. The “international humanitarian movement embodied by the Ottawa Convention” must be appeased. Never mind the fact that American APLs already adhere to strict humanitarian standards. For example, they self-deactivate and self-destruct shortly after they are deployed, eliminating the risk to any civilians who may come upon them.

In fact, the U.S. is already party to an international agreement that requires just that. In 1995, the U.S. ratified Amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which mandates that APLs be designed to deactivate and self-destruct according to certain standards — standards that our APLs meet or exceed.

But the current occupant of the White House seems to feel that that’s not enough. The desire to placate the international human-rights community now takes precedence over the safety and success of our troops.

After failing to achieve an outright ban under the CCW framework, a bloc of 1,200 non-governmental organizations calling itself the International Campaign to Ban Landmines convened its own treaty conference in Ottawa — a process described by one anti-landmine activist as “gently pushing aside the central feature of state sovereignty as the guide for all international relations.” In other words, taking away the right of the U.S. to govern itself.

If other nations in the world want to be party to the Ottawa Convention and champion the absolute prohibition of APLs, that’s their business. The U.S., however, must balance its desire to promote humanitarianism with real-world military necessity.

Ottawa Convention champions such as Norway, Switzerland, and Belgium are rarely called upon to fight anyone. But as the de facto leader of the free world, the U.S. must retain the ability to deploy APLs in future conflicts. They are essential to force protection, especially for exposed positions and forward bases that are operating in hostile territory against much larger forces. The military advantages are obvious. And, when properly deployed and responsibly removed at the end of hostilities, American APLs pose no danger to anyone but our enemies.

So what will the president do if, in the future, the U.S. must go to war against a massive army? What weapon will the U.S. deploy to deny the enemy key areas of the battlefield? General Dempsey and General Clark say the U.S. needs APLs to meet those military needs and to reduce casualties among our service men and women. The commander-in-chief should give greater weight to those concerns and less regard to winning the plaudits of international activists.

— Steven Groves is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom. Ted R. Bromund is a Senior Research Fellow at the Thatcher Center.

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