Monday, February 03, 2020

Trump reverses US course on landmine policy

The Trump administration announced in a two-paragraph statement on Friday that it would no longer adhere to the Obama-era policy prohibiting the use of landmines outside the Korean peninsula. The Department of Defense issued a more substantive explanation on the same day.

Most nations, including every NATO member state except the United States, adhere to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty which banned landmines from use. The United States had previously made moves to come into compliance with the treaty, including the Obama policy being rolled back, but it had never been ratified by Congress. The door has been swinging for the executive branch to open or close, as Human Rights Watch points out in its statement responding to the announcement. The decision is sure to draw comparisons to the Trump administration's 2017 decision to allow for the use of cluster munitions, though that's a separate topic.

The DoD post discusses a "capability gap" for US forces and the utility of "area-denial systems" such as landmines. It's careful to point out that the landmines being employed are not "persistent," meaning they have the ability to self-destruct or self-deactivate after a period. The statement also points out that the US will continue to help demine some areas worldwide.

There is no specific discussion of why the Trump administration decided to take this course now; only that the "strategic environment" had changed since 2016. The only nation mentioned in the DoD statement is Iran, in its final Q&A, and it denies that Iran is the reason for this change in policy.

The short-term impact may be somewhat limited. The US military is likely already viewed with skepticism or hostility in theaters where landmines are most likely to be used. The long-term impact could be worse. While the Trump administration may find some utility for landmines, it's also possible that they won't have a significant impact on overall capabilities. It's not hard to imagine a scenario where the decision does more harm than good.

It's worth noting here that landmines haven't been a major priority for any presidential action. The Obama administration didn't set a course to join the treaty until 2014, well into its second term. Trump, who overturned so many Obama policies early in his presidency, has waited three full years to make this decision. If the US is serious about landmines, the next president can take the issue head-on and send the treaty to Congress early. That would end the tug-of-war in the executive branch.

No comments: