Disarmament Insight

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Thursday, 29 January 2009

Reading the Tea Leaves: Obama and Cluster Bombs



What will US President Obama do about cluster bombs? The new administration announced immediate changes in some defense and national security related matters, most notably on interrogation methods and the closing of Guantanamo Bay detention center within the next year. No such quick action on cluster munitions took place, however. For clues about future action, we can look at President Obama’s voting record as a Senator, positions taken after the campaign, and the orientation of his senior and midlevel appointments in national security positions.

Obama’s Record in the Senate

In September 2006, Senator Obama voted for Senator Feinstein’s proposed amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill:

No funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be obligated or expended to acquire, utilize, sell, or transfer any cluster munition unless the rules of engagement applicable to the cluster munition ensure that the cluster munition will not be used in or near any concentrated population of civilians, whether permanent or temporary, including inhabited parts of cities or villages, camps or columns of refugees or evacuees, or camps or groups of nomads.
The amendment failed by a vote of 70-30. The proposal was certainly a modest one and came before the ban movement got traction, but that the future President was willing to take a positive stand is certainly an encouraging sign. While the focus of this blog is on the Obama administration, it should be noted that the US Congress is likely to consider similar legislation again this year.

After the Election


Following the election and on the eve of the signing of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in Oslo, a spokesperson for the incoming President gave the following statement:
President-elect Obama is deeply concerned about the well-being of civilians in situations of conflict, as reflected by his support of the legislation in 2006 that would have prohibited the use of cluster munitions near concentrations of civilians. As president, he will carefully review the new treaty and work closely [with] other countries to ensure that the United States is doing everything feasible to promote protection of civilians in conflict.
Not a resounding endorsement of the Oslo treaty, but it holds some promise.

Do Obama’s cabinet and staff picks give us any clues?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voted against the September 2006 Feinstein amendment. As did Joe Biden (now the Vice President) and another cabinet member, Ken Salazar (now Secretary of the Interior). More recently, written questions about the broad principles that are likely to guide the Obama Administration’s policy review on cluster munitions were put to her as a part of Secretary of State confirmation procession in the US Senate. The written response was as follows:

The incoming Administration has not taken a position on the new cluster bomb treaty. I look forward to working with the President-elect and the rest of the national security team on this issue in order to develop a policy that upholds our moral obligations while protecting our troops. The new Administration will carefully review the treaty in consultation with military commanders and work closely with our friends and allies to ensure that the United States is doing everything feasible to promote protection of civilians - especially children.
In the words of one observer close to the process: “they punted.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ position on cluster munitions, while he was serving at the pleasure of President Bush is well known. On June 19, 2008, after the CCM had been adopted but not signed, Gates issued a new Department of Defense Policy on cluster munitions. That policy, in part, states that:

DoD recognizes that blanket elimination of cluster munitions is unacceptable due not only to negative military consequences but also due to potential negative consequences for civilians. Large-scale use of unitary weapons, as the only alternative to achieve military objectives, could result, in some cases, in unacceptable collateral damage and explosive remnants of war (ERW) issues.
President Obama decided to retain Gates as Defense Secretary. Will it be President Obama’s pleasure to change Gates’ mind?

National Security Advisor James Jones, Jr. is a retired marine who began his career as a platoon leader in Vietnam. In the late 1990s, he served as a military assistant to President Clinton’s Defense Secretary William Cohen.

It’s not clear how much he was involved in the formulation of the now abandoned Cohen policy on cluster munitions, which required all cluster munitions produced after 2005 to have a failure rate of no more than 1%.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was on the National Security Council (NSC) staff as Director for International Organizations and Peacekeeping and then became Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for African Affairs during the Clinton Administration. Eventually, she moved over to the State Department as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

When the Eritrea/Ethiopia War broke out in 1998 , she was tasked with trying to negotiate a settlement. She likely remembers the carnage caused when the Eritrean air force dropped cluster bombs on Mekele, Ethiopia in the opening days of that conflict. In 1999, Rice co-wrote an op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune castigating the conduct of the Sudanese government against its own people.

Rice is certainly no John Bolton (the former US ambassador to the UN who openly disdained the organization – he was eventually replaced by Zalmay Khalilzad), and will take a much more multilateral approach to issues. Being in New York may limit her impact on conventional arms control issues, though.

Mid Level Appointments

Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn has been the Senior Vice President for Government Operations and Strategy at Raytheon. Prior to that he has served in a variety of DoD positions. Raytheon manufactures various versions of the Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW), a “precision attack glide bomb”. Among the payloads for the JSOW are both the BLU-97 CEM bomblets (tagged as one of the “dirty dozen” cluster munitions by Human Rights Watch) and Textron’s Sensor Fuzed Weapon.

Lynn’s confirmation ran into a snag because of the new president’s ethics rules that “ban lobbyists who join his administration for two years from working on issues they were previously involved with.” Not to worry – President Obama waived that rule for Lynn.

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, president and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, is counted among the “counterinsurgents”. She held several positions in the Clinton administration (including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy). She does not appear to have directly addressed the issue of cluster munitions, but an approach that stresses connecting with local populations would likely place a premium on reducing harm to civilians. In a piece published in October of 2008, Flournoy and Shawn Brimley called on “the new civilian leadership in the Pentagon” to “adopt an ethic of responsible stewardship.”

Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Charles Johnson has been a partner at the DC office of the Paul Weiss law firm. Beginning in 1998, he served for 27 months as General Counsel to the Department of the Air Force. In that position he very likely had to consider the legality of the use of cluster munitions, as the weapon was used extensively by the USAF in the Kosovo campaign. Johnson is certainly a change from William Haynes III, his predecessor, who has been seen as one of the most aggressive defenders of the Bush era interrogation policies.

Deputy Secretary of State for Policy Jim Steinberg served as Deputy National Security Advisor under Clinton from 1996 to 2000, covering the time of the Kosovo campaign. He held other positions in the State Department and served as Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brooking Institution. Along with Kurt Campbell, Steinberg recently launched a book entitled Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power in which they caution against quick changes in policy, but also the need to consult with allies.

So, what does all this reading of the tea leaves tell us?

Unlike the immediate decisions to reverse Bush administration policies on torture and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, no such quick turnaround in policy will likely result on cluster munitions unless there is considerable pressure to do so. That said, there is a general sense of “out with the old and in with the new.” The new administration is committed to multilateralism and listening in a way not usually associated with the Bush administration, so there is room for strong NATO proponents of the CCM to make an impact. The decision makers discussed above at least on the surface appear to have a greater respect for the opinions of their military counterparts. If US allies who are supporters of the Oslo Treaty are to have a positive impact, they will need to be working at convincing not only civilians in the new administration, but also their US military colleagues.


This is a guest blog by Virgil Wiebe, Director of Clinical Education and Associate Professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Minneapolis.

Photo: ‘Paragon Fortune Telling Teacup’ by Beads by Laura on Flickr.

1 comments:

Jeff Abramson said...

Thank you, Virgil, for looking for clues. The first place we may see any evidence of change in U.S. policy may be in the upcoming CCW governmental group of experts meeting. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if the U.S. is simply quiet there. This issue may take some time to filter through as the administration takes shape.

When we asked during the campaign season we also received a noncommittal, but potentially positive response:

ACT: There are several international initiatives under consideration or in place to reduce the threats posed by conventional weapons that take the lives of noncombatants, including a limit or ban on cluster munitions use, a global arms trade treaty to better regulate weapons transfers, and the Ottawa Convention against anti-personnel landmines. What steps, if any, should be taken to limit conventional arms dangers?

Obama: In general, I strongly support international initiatives to limit harm to civilians caused by conventional weapons. In the Senate, I worked with Senator Lugar to pass legislation securing conventional weapons like shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, anti-personnel landmines, and other small arms; co-sponsored legislation introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) prohibiting future procurement of victim-activated landmines; and voted for an amendment offered by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Leahy prohibiting the use or transfer of cluster munitions absent rules of engagement ensuring they would not be employed near concentrations of civilians.

As president, I will help lead the way on these issues. Our military has legitimate concerns on these issues, and I look forward to consulting closely with leadership at the Department of Defense as we shape policies on these key issues. At the same time, I recognize that our forces have been moving away from using cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines ourselves, and these trends can be accelerated with targeted investments in innovative technologies. We also have a strong national security interest in preventing the illegal trade in small arms, including rocket launchers sought by terrorists and other extremists. I will regain our leadership on these issues by joining our allies in negotiations and honoring U.S. commitments to seek alternatives to landmines, while also ensuring that our service members have the tools that they need to do the dangerous missions that we ask them to perform.

see http://www.armscontrol.org/system/files/Obama_Q-A_FINAL_Dec10_2008.pdf