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