Why did Biden take so long to reverse Trump’s landmine rule?
This week, the Biden administration reversed Trump-era rules on the production and use of anti-personnel landmines in a belated fulfillment of a campaign pledge to return to the earlier restrictions put in place by President Obama in 2014.
The decision to bring the United States closer to the international consensus on the prohibition of landmines was the result of a slow, lengthy policy review process initiated in the first weeks of Biden’s presidency. Unlike some other Biden administration reviews including the review of sanctions policy, this one delivered a meaningful change.
According to the White House fact sheet detailing the move, “These changes reflect the President’s belief that these weapons have disproportionate impact on civilians, including children, long after the fighting has stopped, and that we need to curtail the use of APL worldwide.”
The renewed U.S. commitment to banning the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of anti-personnel landmines is an important step in the right direction towards the complete elimination of these weapons from the U.S. arsenal. The new Biden rules predictably keep the old exception for the Korean Peninsula, and that is something that will have to be corrected in the future. While the United States needs to do more to bring itself fully into line with the 1997 Ottawa Convention that has been endorsed by 164 U.N. member states, the Biden administration deserves credit for undoing at least one of Trump’s harmful policy decisions.
The Trump administration relaxed the Obama-era restrictions at the end of January 2020 and claimed that it was necessary to safeguard U.S. troops in an era of “strategic competition.” This wasn’t true, but it did show how the rhetoric of “competition” with Russia and China could be used to justify any decision, no matter how unrelated, unnecessary, or counterproductive it might be. There was no military necessity that required the change in policy, and U.S. forces have not been safer in any part of the world because of the loosened restrictions under Trump.
When he was a candidate, Biden said in response to the change that he would “promptly roll back” Trump’s decision, which he called “reckless” and “deeply misguided,” but for the first year and a half of his presidency there was no change. The delay in making the change back to the pre-Trump policy earned Biden considerable criticism from human rights activists, arms control advocates, and members of Congress, all of whom had expected the new administration to move swiftly on this issue.
A statement from the Pentagon in April 2021 justifiably drew howls of derision from critics of Trump’s policy. In it, Pentagon spokesman Mike Holland said, “Landmines, including anti-personnel mines, remain a vital tool in conventional warfare that the United States cannot responsibly forgo” in an echo of Trump-era talking points. The new Biden policy repudiates that thinking, which many in the military have also rejected for many years.
Anti-personnel mines are an inherently indiscriminate weapon by design, and as such they pose a serious threat to civilians in the countries where they are used in conflict. Once landmines are deployed, it is a dangerous and costly process to remove them, and so they often remain a threat to the civilian population for years and even decades after they were put in place.
Like cluster munitions, landmines continue to kill innocent people long after the fighting ends. Even when injuries do not result in death, they can maim and cripple victims for life. According to a 2021 report by the Landmine Monitor, more than 4,300 people were killed by landmines worldwide in 2020 alone, and another 2,700 were killed by other leftover explosives.
The United States has no need for these weapons, and it hasn’t used them in large numbers for more than 30 years. The last time that the U.S. military employed anti-personnel mines in combat on a large scale was during Operation Desert Storm, and during the war they mostly became an obstacle for U.S. forces and otherwise served no real purpose. Anti-personnel mines are frequently a liability to the forces that use them.
As former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Alfred Gray, Jr. said in 1995, “We kill more Americans with our own mines than we do anyone else.” Far from providing U.S. forces with additional security, these weapons potentially put them at greater risk when they are used.
Exempting the Korean Peninsula from the prohibition on the use of landmines is not surprising, but it is still mistaken. Korea is one of the places in the greatest need of demining. There are still hundreds of thousands of landmines in South Korea in need of removal, and most of these have nothing to do with protecting against a possible North Korean attack. As for the remaining landmines, their value is negligible. As Human Rights Watch noted in their statement on the policy change this week, “Numerous retired US military officers, including those who commanded forces in South Korea, have said that using antipersonnel mines there is of little or no military value.”
The military hangs on to these weapons not because they are useful, but because it doesn’t want to give up a weapon under outside pressure. As the late Mark Perry put it in an excellent 2020 article on U.S. landmine policy, “Landmines were never important to the military — until NGOs tried to ban them. Then, suddenly, we couldn’t do without them.” The only reason for the United States to permit the continued production of anti-personnel mines is as a sop to arms manufacturers, and that is always a terrible reason for the government to do anything.
It remains puzzling that it took his administration almost 17 months to do something that they could have done more than a year ago. It is not clear why the review process took so long, especially when the policy that was being reviewed made so little sense. While there is some value in taking a slow and deliberative approach to assessing existing policies, it should not take more than a year to follow through on a promise to overturn a policy as irresponsible as this Trump-era measure was. The change in policy is better late than never, but it is still quite late.
The Biden administration’s decision to repudiate the use and production of these weapons almost everywhere will help to reinforce the stigma against their use. Congress and arms control advocates should continue pressing them to build on this positive change. If the United States were to sign and ratify the Ottawa Convention treaty, which would require a ban on landmines in Korea, that might encourage some of the other remaining holdouts, including South Korea, to do likewise.