In Oslo today, some 100 countries began signing a treaty against cluster bombs. The Convention on Cluster Munitions bans all production, transfer, stockpiling, and use of cluster munitions, which operate by spreading numerous anti-personnel bomblets across an area. The argument for the ban is that the munitions cause too much collateral damage, since many bomblets do not detonate immediately, and thus pose a long-term threat to civilians who enter what was once a battlefield.

While it is undoubtedly true that that problem is a real one, signatories of the treaty fail to take into account the fact that cluster bombs are still the best weapon against enemy forces in trenches—the bomblets can bounce into them. And in fact, the munitions were used to great effect by the U.S. in Iraq against dug-in Republican Guard troops, as well as by Israel against entrenched Hezbollah soldiers in the 2006 Lebanon war. In the latter instance, Israel was severely attacked by international opinion since its military targets were supposedly too close to civilian areas, but when it comes to the treaty, the fundamental question is not whether cluster bombs were used ethically in any particular instance, but rather whether they can be used ethically at all. In an ideal world, all cluster bomblets would defuse quickly, and thus pose less of a humanitarian threat, but until that technology is available, it seems reasonable for countries to be permitted to use them responsibly. This is why the U.S.—along with China, Russia, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Brazil—oppose a total ban. Unlike most of these countries, few of the 100 countries signing the treaty anticipate having to fight trench warfare anytime soon.

A similar logic undercuts the Ottawa Treaty, much loved by Western Europeans, which completely bans all anti-personnel landmines. Does anyone think that South Korea would be safer were it not protected from its northern neighbor by a belt of one million landmines?

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