Canadians taking lead in mine fight United States 'miffed' as nation to north forms coalition against weapon


President Clinton, under mounting international pressure to commit the United Sattes to a ban on anti-personnel land mines, has found himself stranded in a minefield of his own: left behind by a fast-moving Canadian foreign policy initiative and accepting a plank of U.S. foreign policy dictated by the Pentagon.

Clinton, who has hedged on a timetable for joining a land-mine ban, has been outflanked by the persistent Canadian initiative and is scrambling to avoid being left out of the process altogether. At the same time, he seems caught in a political firefight between what one anti-mine campaigner called "the dueling generals."

Forged by Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, the "Ottawa Process," as it's become known, has developed into a weighty coalition of countries who support a total ban on the production, stockpiling, export and use of anti-personnel mines.

At an international conference in Ottawa last October, Axworthy gauged that there was substantial support for a global ban and unexpectedly invited all nations to return to Ottawa this December to sign the treaty. Representatives of more than 100 countries will meet in Oslo, Norway, in early September to hammer out the final wording.

So far, the United States has said it cannot agree to outlaw all types of anti-personnel mines. Russia, China, India and Pakistan also oppose a ban.

More than 1,000 non-governmental organizations around the world have demanded a total ban on the weapons, which kill or maim an estimated 26,000 people a year. More than 100 million anti-personnel mines are buried in 70 countries, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Canada's effort, which began in January 1996 and has relied on building a consensus among national governments and non-governmental organizations, has left U.S. policy-makers fuming, sources in Washington and Ottawa said.

"There were a lot of ruffled feathers, and the U.S. was much more ruffled than others. The U.S. is clearly uncomfortable that middle and small powers are driving this," said Stephen Goose, director of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch Arms Project and a leading member of the international Campaign to Ban Landmines.

"The administration was arrogant and kind of naive," said a senior Congressional aide who supports a ban and is close to the negotiations. "Washington was miffed at not being consulted before Canada announced that it would invite countries to come to Ottawa and sign the treaty. They have been pooh-poohing this effort for months, only to find that they have been left behind."

Caught off-balance by the speed and success of Ottawa's drive, some officials of the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council sarcastically referred to Canada and its pro-ban partners as a "coalition of angels" and the "country club forum" for going ahead without Washington's approval, sources said.

A Canadian official shrugged off the criticism and said Washington had painted itself into a corner with an inflexible negotiating position.

"Canada's response is, take a look at the coalition we've put together -- former mine-using countries and mine-producing countries like France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and South Africa," said an official with the Department of Foreign Affairs who asked that his name not be used. "The U.S. promised leadership on the issue. They would be better characterized as reluctant followers."

Negotiators in Ottawa have been quietly savoring what they see as a successful diplomatic push in the face of Washington's opposition. "We would argue that policy-making in a global context needs to be global," the Canadian diplomat said. "It demonstrates that in the post-Cold War world, middle powers can avail themselves of new power to build coalitions. We are finding that we can do a lot of things we didn't know we could do."

Anti-mine campaigners praised Ottawa's effort. "Canada put its diplomatic capital on the line and worked incredibly hard," said Goose of Human Rights Watch. "It has been their top priority. No other country has put as much into this as Canada."

As Canada pursued its own course, Clinton promised in May 1996 to seek a worldwide ban on anti-personnel mines "as soon as possible," but he reserved the right to keep the mines in the Demilitarized Zone separating South and North Korea and the right to use "smart mines" -- ones designed to self-destruct -- elsewhere until an international ban is agreed on. Clinton has insisted that such a treaty be negotiated at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, a slow-moving forum in which other U.N. countries hold veto power.

Clinton also faces an unusual predicament at home. A majority of senators, including prominent Republicans typically friendly to the military, and more than 160 members of the House favor a ban. Last year, a group of high-ranking retired military officers signed an open letter to Clinton urging a ban.

"Given the wide range of weaponry available to military forces today, anti-personnel land mines are not essential," the retired combat officers wrote. "Thus, banning them would not undermine the military effectiveness or safety of our forces, nor those of other nations."

Among the signers were Lieut. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth, a former commander of U.S. forces in Korea; Gen. David Jones, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. H. Norman Schwarz-kopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, and Lieut. Gen Robert G. Gard Jr., who commanded U.S. forces in Korea and Vietnam. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and serving officers in the Pentagon say "smart" mines are an essential combat weapon that must remain in the U.S. arsenal.

Recently, an opposing group of retired officers joined the battle on the side of the Pentagon. Twenty four retired four-star generals urged Clinton to "resist all efforts to impose a moratorium on the future use of self-destructing anti-personnel land mines by combat forces of the United States." Among these signers were Gen. John W. Vessey, a former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe; Gen. William C. Westmoreland, a former Army chief; former Secretary of State and retired Gen. Alexander FTC M. Haig Jr.; and six former commandants of the U.S. Marine Corps. Self-destructing mines are "indispensable to the safety of our troops in many combat and peacekeeping operations," they wrote.

(One of the former Marine commandants, Alfred M. Gray, apparently has changed his public stance. In 1993, Gray told a symposium in North Carolina that mines were ineffective in combat and a danger to U.S. troops. "We kill more Americans with our own mines than we do anyone else," he said at the time.)

Faced with opposing opinions from serving and retired officers, Clinton, who has occasionally been criticized for not serving in the military, has chosen to heed the advice of the Pentagon.

"Clinton told me he can't afford to rupture with the Joint Chiefs," said Bobby Muller, director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, who has discussed the issue with the president on at least two occasions. "The same can be said of [Vice President] Al Gore, who doesn't want any daylight between him and the military. The whole thing basically makes a mockery of civilian leadership of the military."

Others question the leadership of Clinton, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. "The military is coming dangerously close to rewriting U.S. policy," said Goose of Human Rights Watch.

Another powerful force on Capitol Hill, Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who heads the Committee on Foreign Relations, also backed the military and said mines are needed to protect U.S. troops and guard national security interests. Helms and others also say a treaty ban would be useless if not agreed to by major mine-producing countries such as China and Russia.

Philip C. Winslow is the author of the forthcoming book "Sowing the Dragon's Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War."

Pub Date: 8/10/97

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