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“Madness of Militarism”: Biden OKs Cluster Bombs for Ukraine Despite Risk of Civilian Casualties

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The Biden administration is drawing outrage after announcing it will send cluster bombs to Ukraine as part of a new weapons package. When deployed, cluster munitions spread smaller “bomblets” across a wide area and regularly kill civilians, either on initial impact or from unexploded segments that go off later. Their use has been banned by 123 countries that signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but the United States, Russia and Ukraine are not signatories to the treaty. This comes as a new Human Rights Watch report documents how Ukrainian civilians have been killed or injured by cluster munitions, including by Ukrainian forces. We speak to Mary Wareham, advocacy director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch, who calls the Biden administration’s decision “appalling,” and to writer and activist Norman Solomon, author of War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine, who says the U.S.’s military hypocrisy demonstrates a “willingness to sacrifice human beings and human rights on behalf of [its] strategic interests.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States is facing questions at home and worldwide over its decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine. The weapons release smaller so-called bomblets over a wide area and often leave unexploded munitions that threaten the lives of civilians for years to come. They are banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions and international treaties signed by 123 countries, though not signed by the United States, Ukraine or Russia. National security adviser Jake Sullivan defended the Biden administration’s move Friday.

JAKE SULLIVAN: We recognize that cluster munitions create a risk of civilian harm from unexploded ordnance. This is why we’ve deferred — deferred the decision for as long as we could. But there is also a massive risk of civilian harm if Russian troops and tanks roll over Ukrainian positions and take more Ukrainian territory and subjugate more Ukrainian civilians. … Ukraine would not be using these munitions in some foreign land. This is their country they’re defending. These are their citizens they’re protecting. And they are motivated to use any weapons system they have in a way that minimizes risks to those citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pentagon claims the cluster bombs that it’s sending to Ukraine have a failure rate of just over 2%, but the Pentagon’s own statement suggests the cluster munitions include older grenades with a known dud rate of 14% or more. Dissent within the Democratic Party to Biden’s decision is being led by California Congressmember Barbara Lee, who’s running to replace the retiring Senator Dianne Feinstein and was the sole vote against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Congressmember Lee spoke on CNN Sunday.

REP. BARBARA LEE: We know what takes place in terms of cluster bombs being very dangerous to civilians. They don’t always immediately explode. Children can step on them. That’s a line we should not cross. I think the president’s been doing a good job managing this war, this Putin aggressive war against Ukraine, but I think that this should not happen. He had to ask for a waiver under the Foreign Assistance Act just to do it, because we have been preventing the use of cluster bombs since, I believe, 2010.

AMY GOODMAN: Today President Biden is in Britain ahead of the NATO summit this week in Lithuania. He met with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who noted the U.K. is a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: Well, the U.K. is a signatory to a convention which prohibits the production or use of cluster munitions and discourages their use. We will continue to do our part to support Ukraine against Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion. We’ve done that by providing heavy battle tanks and, most recently, long-range weapons, you know, and hopefully all countries can continue to support Ukraine. Russia’s act of barbarism is causing untold suffering to millions of people.

AMY GOODMAN: Several Southeast Asian nations, still cluttered with cluster bombs the United States dropped on them during the Vietnam War, have also raised alarm. The Laotian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Monday it opposed Biden’s move, quote, “as the world’s largest victim of cluster munitions.” And the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Sunday, quote, “It would be the greatest danger for Ukrainians for many years or up to a hundred years if cluster bombs are used in Russian-occupied areas in the territory of Ukraine.”

This comes as a new report by Human Rights Watch on cluster bombs used by Russia and Ukraine documents they repeatedly killed and injured civilians.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Mary Wareham is advocacy director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch and editor of the annual Cluster Munition Monitor. Also with us is Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of RootsAction.org. His piece in The Hill is headlined “The U.S. should not provide cluster munitions to Ukraine.” His new book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mary Wareham, we’re going to begin with you in Wellington, New Zealand. If you can respond to the U.S. decision? What does this mean for the world that the U.S., the most powerful country on Earth, says it will supply cluster bombs to Ukraine?

MARY WAREHAM: Thanks, Amy.

This is an appalling decision by the Biden administration to transfer potentially hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds containing potentially millions of unreliable submunitions that have got a high — higher dud rate than we believe the Pentagon has disclosed. You mentioned 14% may fail to explode. You know, Human Rights Watch objected to this transfer due to the likelihood of civilian harm, and we do not say that lightly, but after issuing 10 reports detailing the extensive use of cluster munition rockets and missiles by Russian forces since the very first day of the conflict. Ukrainian forces have also used cluster munitions, in fewer numbers, but what our report released last week shows is that they had used cluster munition rockets, firing them into a city in the east called Izium over a period of nearly six months during 2022 when it was under Russian occupation.

And the stories are pretty sad and horrific, people who were killed in their homes during the cluster munition strike, a woman cooking outside in her garden who was killed while together with her young daughter and her mother, other neighbors sitting on a park bench outside of their apartment building who were hit in a strike. These are all casualties from the time of use, which is one reason why cluster munitions are prohibited.

And, of course, the other is that the cluster munitions result in unexploded ordnance. Many submunitions fail to detonate as intended, and that leaves a legacy of contamination, which I think the Laos Foreign Ministry statements and the Cambodian prime minister have referred to quite eloquently. They do not want to see the horror of cluster munitions, you know, get any worse in Ukraine, because they know full well that it will take years to clear up the remnants.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk specifically, Mary, about why children are so often the victims of these unexploded — I hate to say “bomblets,” because it almost sounds sort of cute, which of course it isn’t.

MARY WAREHAM: Some call them submunitions, and the U.S. military calls the DPICM submunitions grenades.

But they are. They’re small, battery-sized, and some have got features that are appealing to children, such as ribbons that are used to stabilize the munition as it disperses in the air. Others have got fins, interesting shapes, colors, small-sized. And cluster munitions, submunitions from them, tend to land on the ground or bury into the ground, and that’s where children come across them. Children are, by their very nature, curious. And there is going to have to be some extremely thorough risk education for Ukrainian children for the years to come to keep them safe from these remnants. In other countries, children are also injured while they are collecting scrap metal to sell on. This is particularly common in Southeast Asia. And it’s yet another reason why children account for the vast majority — or, they account for more than half of the casualties from the remnants. And the vast majority of victims of cluster munitions are civilian, not military.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, talk about this meeting that President Biden just had with Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, before they head to Vilnius, Lithuania, for the NATO summit. You don’t know what they said in that meeting, but Rishi Sunak, the Conservative prime minister, did come out with a statement this weekend, because he had to, because Britain, unlike the U.S., Ukraine and Russia, is a signatory to the cluster bomb ban, the international cluster bomb ban that is signed by 123 nations, which says you can’t produce them, you can’t promote them. And that’s significant. You have to discourage the use of them. And yet here, a day or two after President Biden makes his announcement, they meet.

MARY WAREHAM: Yes. The United Kingdom served as the president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions last year. It did a huge amount of work to promote the convention with countries that have not yet joined. And in February, Nigeria ratified the convention. We understand that other African states that have not yet done so are in the process of preparing to join the international convention. So that’s the kind of work that the U.K. has been doing in support of the convention, so I can imagine that the prime minister would want to remind President Biden of that.

And we see, you know, more than 10 countries’ statements. I’ve seen there’s more, but we’ve seen other world leaders reaffirming their countries’ status as a member of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, because — and that’s important, because the treaty doesn’t just prohibit use, production, stockpiling and trade. It has a very strong provision prohibiting any assistance with those banned activities. So, countries that are U.S. allies that have signed the treaty, that are trying to support Ukraine, have better be very careful when it comes to assisting in any way with the transit of the U.S. cluster munitions headed for Ukraine and with their — facilitating their use once they get into the country. That is strictly off limits to countries that are part of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and that’s why they have to tell Biden this.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the report you just put out saying it’s not just Russia that’s been using cluster bombs in Ukraine, it’s Ukraine? And where do those cluster bombs come from that Ukraine is currently using?

MARY WAREHAM: So, Ukraine inherited a stockpile of old Soviet cluster munitions during the breakup of the Soviet Union. And it used those cluster munition rockets in 2014 and ’15 in the east and, we believe, in the current conflict, as well. But now, apparently, it has run out of those types of cluster munitions, and it needs more, more ammunition for its artillery systems, its artillery projectiles.

Cluster munitions, you know, can be dropped from the air, as you’ve seen in previous conflicts. But in Ukraine, the vast majority appear to be launched from the ground in rockets and missiles and artillery and mortar projectiles. Ukraine’s use has been far less extensive compared to what Russia has done, but Ukraine has used cluster munitions in Ukraine since the very beginning of the conflict. Last March was the first use recorded. And the United Nations also went into the same area that Human Rights Watch did last year and saw the remnants of cluster munitions there and reached the same conclusion that Ukrainian forces were likely responsible for that cluster munition use. So, we were disappointed to see Ukraine deny that it used cluster munitions in Izium in 2022. It has admitted that anti-personnel landmines may have been used, and is studying a report from Human Rights Watch detailing that use of another prohibited weapon.

But, you know, these weapons are prohibited for very good reason, and that’s due to the harm caused to civilians. And this is why we do not wish to see any more cluster munitions used by any side to the conflict in Ukraine due to the civilian casualties now and into the future.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to national security adviser Jake Sullivan defending the Biden administration’s decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Russia has been using cluster munitions with high dud or failure rates of between 30 and 40%. In this environment, Ukraine has been requesting cluster munitions in order to defend its own sovereign territory. The cluster munitions that we would provide have dud rates far below what Russia is doing — is providing, not higher than 2.5%.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could respond to what he’s talking about, you know, the dud rate being, well, what creates those bomblets, if you will, those, essentially, what become landmines? He’s saying that Russia — and I heard Biden say something like Russia’s dud rate was like 30%, and, to show that we’re humane, ours is only 1%. But the Times pointed out the U.S. dud rate is as high as 14%. Can you talk about the significance of all of this?

MARY WAREHAM: I mean, we were seriously hoping for some actual details in the announcement on Friday from the Department of Defense as to how it reached the 2.35, you know, no higher than that, dud rate that they’re claiming, because they’re not releasing any of the testing or any of the background information, any of the data on this. And the 14% dud rate number comes from the Pentagon’s own historic documents that they have published in the past. So, we’re unsure why in this case the Pentagon cannot be much more transparent about how it reached its numbers.

But dud rates are only part of the equation here. There’s a lot more that has to be taken into consideration. And also, in operations, in warfare, dud rates are often much higher. The types of cluster munitions that the U.S. is sending also do not work well in muddy areas, areas where it has been wet, where the ground is moist, you know, and this is what we’ve seen in Ukraine with the flooding in recent weeks. So, there’s all sorts of challenges with the transfer, but kind of pointing to the technical fix of, you know, somehow we’re going to deal with this through dud rates is not an adequate response or answer at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch, I also want to bring in Norm Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy and RootsAction.org. Your new book, Norm, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine. Can you talk about how this is playing in the United States? And talk about it being a Democratic president, President Biden, who has — though admitting there is pushback, he’s made this decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, this is playing with a message from the White House — “Do as we say, not as we do” — to Russia, and really to the world. Last year, the White House said that use of cluster munitions deserved to be in the category of war crime. Now they’re saying, “Just fine. No problem.” And this is symptomatic of a mentality, what Dr. King called the “madness of militarism,” that blends with a kind of doublethink, as George Orwell called it. This is a way of saying that “We want to run the world. We make the rules. We break the rules.” It’s also a way of saying that when civilians are killed and it’s done by an enemy state, that’s terrible. We condemn it, because we have the high moral ground. But when we are accessories to the crime, when we do it, as the U.S. did in the invasion of Iraq, using 1.8 to 2 million so-called bomblets in the first few weeks of that invasion, when we do it, it’s A-OK.

And this is one reason why I called the book War Made Invisible, because there are so many layers in which the United States engages in warfare, directly and indirectly, and it gets sanitized. It gets made invisible. It gets spun, as the White House in the last 72 hours is in overdrive. This is a willingness to engage with the world and say, “We get to define what lives matter and what lives don’t.” And I think this is the tacit messaging coming from the Biden administration, especially in the last few days, in this context, that we are supporting the human rights of civilians in Ukraine and elsewhere, except when they don’t matter, because, then, we have a tactical, strategic reason otherwise. Part of the messaging is, “Oh, if the Ukrainian government kills Ukrainian civilians, that’s OK, because that’s for their own good.”

And, Amy, I think one thing that needs to be really pointed out and thought about deeply, that I have not seen in the corporate media whatsoever, is that the same logic that the Biden White House is using to try to justify this horrific decision can be applied and is applied in the strategic doctrine of both Russia and the United States. We’ve been hearing for weeks from the rumblings on Capitol Hill and from the administration that Ukraine is running out of weapons, and we have all of these cluster munitions stockpiled in the United States, and they’re not doing any good. Why put them to waste? We should send them to Ukraine, which is the logic that ultimately prevailed. And the reason given is that Ukraine might lose the war. And so, if the so-called conventional warfare is not going well and it looks like the back is up against the wall, we need to use this weapon that, before, we had said was absolutely abhorrent. Well, where does that logic lead? It leads to use of tactical nuclear weapons, because the doctrine of the U.S. and Russia is that they reserve the right to use nuclear weapons, to be the first to use nuclear weapons, if their conventional war is not going well.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve written an interesting piece in The Hill, Norm, ”RFK Jr.'s campaign is getting a boost from Biden's hawkishness.” We also just played a clip of Congressmember Barbara Lee, who’s running for Dianne Feinstein’s seat in the Senate, who is one of, what, something like 19 House Democrats who have written a letter condemning the decision to send cluster bombs. Put those two together, the position of the Democratic Party on this as we move into this presidential election year.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, those 19 Democrats should have spoken up a long time ago. I wrote that piece in the middle of May for The Hill. And already, Adam Smith, the ranking member of the Democratic Party on the House Armed Services Committee, was floating the idea publicly that the U.S. should send cluster bombs, cluster munitions to Ukraine. Almost complete silence. The Intercept asked for comment from members of the Progressive Caucus from the House Armed Services Committee, Democrats, got almost no response whatsoever. So, this is a bit late. That statement from Democrats, yes, it’s good. They should have been screaming bloody murder weeks and weeks ago as the Biden administration moved towards this decision.

And I think this decision should be put in a context, a context that ever since the Biden administration withdrew the last troops from Afghanistan almost two years ago, it has been moving more and more to recalibrate its militarism around the planet. So, for instance, military budgets through the roof. A year ago almost exactly, fist-bumping the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia while his country was continuing to slaughter people, with U.S. help, in Yemen. We had just last month a red carpet treatment of Prime Minister Modi from India at the White House and Capitol Hill, somebody with egregious, terrible human rights violations, particularly against Muslims and others, in India.

What’s the common thread here? It’s a willingness to sacrifice human beings and human rights on behalf of the strategic interests of the United States. In the first case, it’s the Middle East against Iran, against Russia, against Syria and so forth. And in the other instance, we’re looking at against China. So, what we’re really seeing is a Biden administration that from the standpoint of believing in diplomacy rather than military confrontation and possible conflagration, it’s been getting worse and worse for at least the last 22 months, has refused to reengage with the Iran nuclear deal and get it done. And I think that’s an example of where the damage that the Trump administration did is not being cleaned up; it’s being ratified by the Biden administration. And likewise, we have that with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which, you know, we who are older can remember back in the 1980s was a victory for the peace movement around the world, in the U.S., in Germany, in England. We got the INF Treaty passed. We pulled the Reagan administration kicking and screaming to agree with that with Gorbachev and get it done, the intermediate-range missile ban for nuclear forces in Europe. When Trump undid that, then Biden came back in, and there’s no action whatsoever.

So, I would just summarize to say that we have an increasingly militaristic Biden administration, and the Democratic Party, from the top, is either going along with it on Capitol Hill or sort of mumbling. I have to say that I wish that Barbara Lee had been more outspoken earlier. I wish there was a willingness at the top of the Democratic Party hierarchy in the House and Senate to apply the same standards that have been applied sometimes to Republican administrations.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of — if you can talk more about the Bush [sic] administration making this decision to send the cluster bombs to Ukraine on the same day as the OPCW — that’s the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — confirmed the U.S. had destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile — OK, 10 years after it said it would?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes, the Biden administration and Biden’s appointees do brag about, and sometimes justified, the good steps that they’ve been part of. But what they give with one hand to humanity, they take away with many other hands. And with the military budget continuing to rise, and, ironically enough, the time of the celebration of the Prince of Peace, late December, for the last couple of years, President Biden very ceremoniously and proudly signed a record military budget, which should not be called a defense budget, lowercase D. And this is the death train that we’re on.

I think we should be very clear about this. And I say this as somebody who believes that we have to defeat the neofascist Republican Party. The only way to do that, practically, is to support a Democratic ticket. That’s the real world we’re in. But this administration is pushing the envelope towards more and more military confrontation with Russia, with China. And the logical endpoint of that journey is nuclear conflagration.

AMY GOODMAN: Norm Solomon, I want to thank you so much for being with us. It’s also very interesting that President Biden is meeting with King Charles right now as we are doing this broadcast, and, you know, his late wife, Princess Di, was one of the people who led the campaign against landmines around the world. Norman Solomon is with the Institute for Public Accuracy and RootsAction.org. His new book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine. And thanks so much to Mary Wareham, advocacy director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, editor of Cluster Munition Monitor.

Next up, we go to Tennessee, where a federal appeals court will allow an anti-trans law to go into effect that bans gender-affirming care. We’ll also look at how the state’s attorney general demanded Vanderbilt University Medical Center hand over medical records for patients at its clinic for gender-affirming care. Back in 30 seconds.

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