For well over a decade, the Left has waged war on cluster munitions.
Left-wing nongovernmental organizations and other groups have demonized them, liberal U.S. administrations have downplayed them, and the left-leaning media have exaggerated the civilian casualties they cause.
But now, in a complete about-face, the U.S. has agreed to supply cluster munitions to the embattled forces of Ukraine in its war against Russia.
That’s the right decision. But in coming belatedly to it, the Biden administration has effectively admitted that the Left’s case against cluster munitions was baseless.
Cluster munitions are a form of ammunition—bombs and artillery shells, usually—that contains lots of smaller sub-munitions. When fired, the larger munition splits open and blankets the target area with the sub-munitions.
Cluster munitions are a way to hit a lot of targets with a lot fewer shells. As such, they’re particularly useful against large, dug-in targets.
The Left’s case against cluster munitions is twofold. First, cluster munitions are supposedly particularly dangerous for civilians after the fighting is over. Second, using cluster munitions will supposedly encourage a lot of bad and dangerous regimes to do very terrible things.
Yes, cluster munitions—like all munitions—sometimes fail to explode. And yes, civilians can be and are injured, or even killed, by unexploded ammunition of all types, including cluster munitions.
But the Left loves to exaggerate the risks. According to The New York Times, in a typical hand-wringing condemnation of the decision to transfer clusters to Ukraine, “cluster munitions have killed an estimated 56,500 to 86,500 civilians” since World War II.
That’s speculative nonsense, and the fact that the Times had to go back to 1945 to make the number of casualties look impressive hints at why.
First, the Times conflates “casualties”—which includes injuries—with deaths. Actual deaths are a fraction of overall casualties. The newspaper literally doesn’t even understand the basic terms it’s using.
Moreover, the Cluster Munitions Monitor, the self-appointed guardian of the effort to ban clusters, places total cluster munition casualties “globally for all time” at 23,082 as of the end of 2021. Any higher figures are “calculated from country estimates” or “based on extrapolations from limited data samples.”
The Left occasionally likes to flirt with the argument that cluster munitions have no military utility, or to claim that, because Ukraine has managed to avoid losing to Russia so far, it doesn’t really need cluster munitions. But you won’t catch anyone who’s actually responsible for leading troops into combat saying that—for the simple reason that it’s not true.
The Left likes to say that we should listen to the experts. Well, the experts at the Pentagon think cluster munitions are useful, which is why the U.S. has so far refused to sign on to a treaty banning them—a ban, by the way, that was adopted almost exclusively by nations that never had or used cluster munitions in the first place.
All the Left can really offer is the argument that cluster munitions have a bad reputation, and that using them will encourage bad regimes to do bad things. But guess who’s responsible for that reputation? The Left itself.
The Times, of course, argues that by not destroying all its cluster munitions, the U.S. “gives cover to countries like Russia and China.”
That’s the same mantra we’ve heard for years: If only the U.S. and the West disarm, show their good intentions, and act nice, Russia and China will lose all their excuses and have to act nice, too.
The fact that the Left is still making this argument now, seven years after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, illustrates that it’s offered completely on faith.
For the Left, banning cluster munitions is just one of the many things we’re supposed to do to show we have good intentions. The facts that clusters are a very minor contributor to civilian suffering, that U.S. forces rely on them, and that Ukraine needs them are all irrelevant.
Of course, if the Left—and the Biden administration—had taken the military issues involved seriously, it might have urged that the U.S. produce a lot more conventional artillery shells before Russia invaded Ukraine, or even after it. Then the U.S. would have more shells to give to Ukraine, and Ukraine might not be quite so desperate for ammunition and so in need of clusters.
But of course, the Left didn’t do that either. Instead, it ignored all the actual military issues, successfully lobbied to give cluster munitions a bad name, and then demanded the West drop clusters as too reputationally dangerous.
Now, the fecklessness of the administration’s Ukraine strategy has come home to roost, and clusters are what we have to give.
Fortunately, the U.S. kept its cluster stockpile. Back in 2011, that was the course that The Heritage Foundation’s analysts advocated. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Now that the Biden administration has acknowledged that we were right, and admitted the efficacy of clusters, it’s time Congress acted to protect and rebuild that stockpile.
The decision to supply Ukraine is the right one in the here and now, but giving away U.S. munitions without developing and procuring adequate replacements would indeed be reckless.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal