When Vice President Al Gore ran into singer Emmylou Harris at a Democratic Party fund-raiser last month, he tried to make small talk with the fellow Tennessean by asking about her family back in Nashville. But Harris cut him short. She asked whether he supported banning land mines - a question that appeared to catch the normally unflappable Gore off guard.
Gore should not have been surprised. In the last year, a campaign to ban land mines that once appeared a quixotic exercise among human rights advocates, doctors and aid workers has become an international cause celebre, attracting support from celebrities and royalty, from congressional Republicans normally skeptical about arms control, and from foreign leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But the Clinton administration is wary of a rush to ban land mines, with Gore perceived as backing the Pentagon’s view that a ban proposed by Canada could endanger U.S. troops and fall short of its goal to eliminate the use of mines.
What unites those seeking a global ban is the evidence of a humanitarian crisis exemplified by the estimated 26,000 people a year killed or maimed by mines. Many of the casualties are children and other civilians who accidently step on hidden mines intended originally for soldiers or left in place long after hostilities end.
About 100 million land mines are buried in 68 countries, blocking roads, keeping farmland out of production and sowing fear and misery.
The campaign is reaching a crucial phase. In September, nearly 100 countries led by Canada and including many U.S. allies will convene in Oslo, Norway, to negotiate a treaty to ban the use of the deadly devices by their military forces. The goal is to finish and sign the agreement by the end of the year.
But while support for the treaty, known as the Ottawa initiative, has been growing internationally, it remains controversial within the Clinton administration.
Although President Clinton said in January that the United States would work toward a treaty outlawing mines, the White House has chosen to pursue the goal through the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, based in Geneva. That forum is notoriously slow-moving, and even U.S. officials concede it is unlikely to result in a ban within the next several years, if then.
To some, the glacial pace of the U.N. effort was the whole idea. The Pentagon opposes entering the fasttrack Oslo negotiations, arguing that elimination of land mines before adequate alternatives can be devised would put U.S. troops at risk in South Korea, Bosnia and in future conflicts. Those in the military who argue for keeping land mines in the arsenal point to their proven role as a “force multiplier,” which means that a scattering of mines can assist in protecting troops from enemy ground attack over a large area.
“We must at this time retain the use of self-destructing (mines) in order to minimize the risk to U.S. soldiers and marines in combat,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff and 14 other U.S. commanders said in a July 10 letter to Congress. “However, we are ready to ban all (land mines) when the major producers and suppliers ban theirs or when an alternative is available.”
Some within the administration, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, are arguing that the United States should join the Oslo talks for both humanitarian and political reasons.
A decision by the president is expected by early next month. In the meantime, there is an intensive lobbying campaign under way by those supporting the treaty to pressure administration officials. One of the coalition’s main targets is Gore, whose considerable influence on military matters with Clinton may prove decisive, advocates believe.
The problem, says Robert O. Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and head of the U.S. coalition to ban land mines, is that Gore is a leading supporter of the Pentagon position on mines within the administration.
It was Muller, hoping to intensify the pressure on Gore, who brought Harris to the June Democratic Party fund-raiser where they both urged Gore, a Vietnam veteran himself, to support the Ottawa initiative. Critics contend that Gore, with one eye on the presidential nomination in 2000 and another on protecting Clinton’s flank from criticism by the military, is taking the Pentagon side for political reasons.
According to administration officials, Gore and others favor a U.N. treaty because it is the only forum where some of the world’s largest users and exporters of mines other than the United States - namely Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel - are present. None of them has agreed to join the Ottawa initiative. Only an agreement that includes those countries is likely to result in a significant decrease in worldwide exports of land mines, they argue, implying that the Canadian initiative is little more than a feel-good exercise.
But a senior Canadian official said that view misses the point. Once the treaty is in place, the official argued, there will be pressure on other countries to renounce the use of mines and join the convention. Without the United States as a signatory, however, other countries will not feel the same degree of isolation.
Administration officials concede that the swiftness with which the Ottawa process has gained momentum surprised them and has left the White House isolated. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as well as Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., is threatening to move a bill that would prohibit new deployments of mines by U.S. forces after 2000.
“The damage done by these hidden killers long after the guns fall silent and armies have gone home far outweighs whatever small benefits they add to our enormous and unsurpassed military arsenal,” Leahy said.
Perhaps more worrisome to the White House is the prospect that Clinton, after calling for a ban in January, could be on the sidelines while the Ottawa initiative proceeds.
Consequently, White House officials are scrambling to see whether it is possible to work out some kind of compromise that will satisfy the Pentagon’s concerns and let the United States join the Canadian-sponsored talks. One possibility, senior officials say, is a special exemption allowing land mines to remain in place along the Demilitarized Zone in Korea - a border that the Pentagon says requires the weapons to protect U.S. troops from the danger of being overrun by North Korean forces.