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US should ban bomblets and get on the right side of history

OPINION: US policymakers should put their weight behind banning cluster bombs rather than being apologists for them.

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A clumsy person shoots himself in the foot; a foolish person, having shot himself in the foot, then shoots his other foot to make them look the same.

In the 1990s, the United States did the diplomatic and humanitarian equivalent of shooting itself in the foot over the land mine issue. President Bill Clinton got the anti-land mine campaign moving when he went to the United Nations in 1994. Calling attention to the damage these weapons cause, he stated: "To end this carnage, the United States will seek a worldwide agreement as soon as possible to end the use of all antipersonnel land mines. The United States will lead a global effort to eliminate these terrible weapons and stop the enormous loss of human life."

Three years later, we were on the outside looking in as the world celebrated the signature of the Ottawa Convention to ban antipersonnel land mines, now signed by every Western Hemisphere country except the US and Cuba, and every NATO member except the US.

As US ambassador to Angola, a country plagued by up to a million land mines, I urged our government to take a more forthcoming stance. The transformation of the US from visionary to spoiler involved many missteps and miscalculations, but I firmly believe that had we engaged early with creative diplomacy, our stated objections – including the need for land mines on the Korean border – could have been addressed.

A decade later, we are about to shoot our other foot. Around the world, there's a growing movement to eliminate the use of cluster munitions. These weapons are dropped from or shot into the sky, separate into dozens of small bomblets, and explode on the enemy. But these weapons have such a wide and uncertain dispersal pattern that, when used in urban areas, they virtually assure that civilians will also be victims. And many bomblets – up to 40 percent in last summer's fighting in Lebanon, for example – don't explode on contact, and remain active on the ground after the conflict ends.

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