06/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The United States of Cluster Bombs

Maybe we should rename ourselves the United States of Cluster Bombs.

This week 111 nations gathered in Dublin to agree on a draft treaty banning these brutal weapons. But the US didn't even attend the talks. Neither did Russia, China, India, Pakistan or Israel. All these countries are big producers or users of cluster munitions.

The US says bluntly that is opposes a ban because these bombs "have demonstrated military utility."

So what does a cluster bomb do?

This is one definition, from Andras Gergely of Reuters UK:

"Cluster munitions open in mid-air and scatter as many as several hundred 'bomblets' over a wide area. They often fail to explode, creating virtual minefields that can kill or injure anyone who finds them later, often curious children."

The International Committee of the Red Cross says cluster bombs have killed or maimed many thousands of civilians. The most recent example is a chilling one. During just one month of the 2006 war in Southern Lebanon, "an estimated 37 million square meters of land were contaminated with up to one million unexploded cluster submunitions," according to the ICRC. "More than 200 civilians have been killed or injured by them since the fighting ended."

"The very characteristics of cluster munitions that make them attractive to military forces -- attacking multiple targets dispersed over a wide area -- are those that make them so dangerous to civilians," says Jakob Kellenberger, president of the ICRC.

After the draft treaty was approved this week, the official line from the US State Department and the Pentagon was that the elimination of cluster munitions "from US stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk."


What about the Iraq War itself? If we didn't want to put our soldiers at risk, why did we invade Iraq with no plan for dealing with the country once we had subdued it. (By the way, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the last time the US used cluster munitions.)

No, I don't think you defend the production, stockpiling and military "utility" of cluster bombs because you want to save lives. You use these dreadful weapons because you want to endanger people and kill them.

Thank goodness that Great Britain and other close allies of the US, decided to reject pressure from Washington to oppose the treaty. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this week supported a ban on all cluster bombs -- without exception -- including those currently being used by the UK. Mr. Brown called the treaty "a big step to make the world a safer place."

Bravo! And thanks to all 111 nations that agreed on the draft treaty, which is likely to be officially signed in Oslo in December. In a world full of terrible happenings, it is heartening to see such sensible leadership.

But what happened to sensible US leadership?

Why have we decided to take the low road, leading the world in frightening and destructive ways:
• Defending torture (by any other name)
• Declaring war on no one in particular (War on Terror) so that we can make anyone we choose into an enemy
• Disregarding the Geneva Conventions
• Being one of a few countries in the world not to sign the 1997 treaty banning landmines
• Invading Iraq for no good reason (but a number of phony ones) and with the end result of the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people and the displacement of millions.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that we stand up to defend terrible weapons like cluster bombs.

And yet I am.

In fact, I was also surprised that cluster bombs were the subject of a Senate vote in 2006, as Huffpost blogger David Rees pointed out in an excellent piece earlier this year.

Diane Feinstein's Senate Amendment No. 4882 on a Pentagon appropriations bill would have banned the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas.

It seemed like common sense. Common decency as well.

It lost 30-70.

Senator Clinton voted against the ban.

Senator McCain voted against the ban.

Senator Obama voted for it.

America is an ongoing experiment in giving the common good a chance to prevail in the common government. The idea of the founders was to devise a dynamic system of government with the ability to self-correct. The founders of the US showed leadership that inspired the world with its emphasis on the worth of the individual. Religious tolerance. Freedom of speech. The pursuit of happiness. We were innovators with a goal of improving the human condition. We were given a government with the capability to change course and evolve.

We desperately need new US leadership to evolve now. Such leadership could revive our reputation around the world and play a key role in working on critical global problems climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation.

Under new leadership, the treaty banning cluster munitions would not be seen as undermining "military utility" but instead as a prudent step to stop avoidable civilian deaths and injuries.

Everyone, everywhere has the right to life and liberty without the fear of stumbling over a little "bomblet" dropped by Uncle Sam or any other nation.

Come on, Washington. Let's do the decent thing. Some things are just plain wrong. Cluster bombs are just plain wrong. Let's sign that treaty.

Postscript -- The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation wants to encourage new US policy and leadership. The Foundation is gathering one million signatures in a major public education campaign, US Leadership for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World -- An Appeal to the Next President of the United States. The text of the Appeal sets out seven prudent steps -- such as de-alerting nuclear weapons -- that would make the world safer. The names will be delivered to the White House on Inauguration Day January 20, 2009.

People can read the US Leadership Appeal and sign on at