Reacting to reports this week that the Libyan military has used cluster munitions against rebels and civilians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she wasn't "surprised by anything that Colonel Gaddafi and his forces do" but described the news as "worrying."
Um, come again? The United States is not only one of the world's largest manufacturers of cluster bombs, it's also one of the few states, along with Libya, not to sign the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Which makes the hectoring of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for using such munitions against civilians ring hollow and hypocritical. If the Obama administration was really serious about banning their use in wartime, it would sign on to these international covenants.
But like a drug user, it can't. That's because American manufacturers love cluster bombs. They are small, cheap, and easy to make. Military honchos like them because they leave a large "footprint" and are versatile, if not very accurate. Against hard-to-find enemies that bleed into the population, they say it makes more sense to drop a thousand one-pound bombs than one thousand-pound bomb. Newer models have warheads whose shrapnel is able to pierce a 70-ton tank.
Last year, the U.S. Air Force reportedly spent billions of dollars to purchase a batch of 4,600 cluster bombs from Textron, a New England-based arms manufacturer that also supplies munitions to Turkey, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. After his election, President Obama promised a full review of America's cluster bomb use and its sales to suspect countries (with the aim of only using and selling those that leave behind less than 1 percent of their submunitions as duds, though only a small handful of U.S.-made cluster bombs passes this threshold).
First used in World War II, cluster bombs came into fashion in the 1960s and '70s during aerial attacks by U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. Washington and Moscow developed cluster bombs capable of carrying chemical weapons like sarin or tear gas. Dozens of nations now own or have used cluster bombs. Humanitarian groups say their use has risen in recent years, beginning with NATO's bombing of the Balkans up through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
American manufacturers love cluster bombs.
Cluster munitions scatter tiny bomblets like buckshot across a swath of land the size of a large city block. They are often dropped by parachute, making them susceptible to unpredictable weather patterns. And many of the canisters do not explode on impact, thus posing a long-term threat to civilians, especially children, who mistake them for soda cans or toys (a third of those maimed by these bombs are children). Duds also pose problems for farmers, who leave their harvest for fear of going into the fields. Even a heavy shower or winter storm is enough to set these bombs off.
Their collateral damage has drawn opprobrium from human rights groups and arms control advocates. Like landmines, there are treaties out there governing their usage. But the Convention on Cluster Munitions which has over 100 countries' signatories and seeks to prevent states from using, storing, or selling the bombs, will remain feckless until major arms suppliers like the United States, Russia, and China sign on, which may not be anytime soon.
During the July 2006 war in Lebanon, the United States re-supplied Tel Aviv with cluster bombs, prompting a State Department investigation to examine if Israel had violated secret agreements it signed with Washington governing their use. Hezbollah, meanwhile, fired thousands of cluster munitions—a Chinese-made Type 81 122mm rocket—into northern Israel, a number of which targeted civilian populations. The collateral damage from the conflict galvanized a number of nations to throw their support behind a ban on cluster bombs.
Last year I met a bomb victim, Ali Muorad, a good-natured twentysomething native of Tyre in southern Lebanon. Earlier in the year his right limb was blown to shreds while clearing ordnance in the nearby hills for a munitions-clearing organization. The accident changed Ali's life. To staunch the bleeding, doctors amputated his leg but botched the operation. They said he might never walk again. But eight months later, he was taking me around the region—yes, he can now drive—educating locals about the bombs, and showing me areas contaminated with unexploded ordnance. Ali sees himself as a missionary of sorts to prevent others from suffering a similar fate, yet his job is actually easier now. "I don't need to show photos anymore," he said, letting out a laugh. "I just point down to my prosthetic leg."
• Tareke Bhrane: My Harrowing Libya EscapeBackers of cluster bombs argue that treaties aimed at limiting their use will only result in militaries purchasing more powerful munitions that are even less accurate and kill more civilians. Unlike the poorer-quality Vietnam-era cluster bombs of previous years, they argue, the latest "smart" models have a 99-percent explosion rate. But cluster munitions are among the most indiscriminate weapon out there, while their effects—unexploded ordnance—are felt long after the war has ended and target civilians disproportionately.
Clinton called Libya's use of cluster bombs "worrying information." Yet sadly, on this front, the United States cannot preach to Gaddafi.
Lionel Beehner is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors, and a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University. He is formerly a senior writer at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is currently a term member. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Slate, and The New Republic, among other publications.