When Professionalism Mattered: Dissent Against U.S. Policy on Landmines

A Former Ambassador Obtains His Newly Declassified Cable

We face a dangerous moment when U.S. diplomats and defense professionals are being cashiered for expressing responsible dissent based on their on-the-ground knowledge, and at the same time, President Donald Trump is recklessly abandoning longstanding policy that has severely restricted the use of landmines, a major shift described in Mary Wareham’s recent article on Just Security. These two current threads converge in an instructive look back to 1997 to see how another administration addressed internal dissent.

That summer, U.S. policy on anti-personnel landmines (APL) was hotly debated in Washington. In the midst of global negotiations in Oslo on the Ottawa Treaty, which would eventually ban the production, transfer, and use of APL, U.S. government “hawks” opposed acceptance of universal measures. They cited exceptional military requirements the U.S. had incurred as leader of the Western alliance, including the defense of South Korea against invasion from the north. By contrast, other policymakers were arguing that the United States should support the immediate and total ban for humanitarian, strategic, and “soft power” interests.

The hawks were winning. The State Department sent instructions in August 1997 to U.S. ambassadors in Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and other mine-affected countries to press their host governments to soften their positions on the landmine ban. We were instructed to ask them to permit the United States and presumably other countries to exercise numerous waivers, exempt anti-tank weapons, exclude South Korea, and accept lengthy implementation timeframes.  These moves would have unraveled the delicate emerging consensus.

I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Angola and I refused to make the demarche. In a confidential cable just declassified by the State Department, entitled “Dissent Against U.S. Positions on Landmines at Oslo APL Conference,” I called the U.S. position “indefensible, filled with contradictions, and inconsistent with true U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.”

I reminded my colleagues that Angola was emerging from a lengthy civil war that left the country the world’s most heavily mined. I described a visit I took in Angola in December 1994 with then-National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, four weeks after the signing of the Peace Accords. We saw the vast devastation of two decades of war, including thousands of amputees from landmine accidents. At a hospital in the destroyed city of Kuito, we saw a pregnant woman who had ventured into a minefield to get food for her unborn child; a mine explosion had induced labor, and she was giving birth and having her shattered leg removed at the same time. It was a sight that will remain with us for the rest of our lives. It was clear to us then that one type of war in Angola was ending, but another — the war to rid this country of the legacy of millions of landmines planted by a dozen armies — was just beginning.

I concluded my dissent message by asking, “How can America’s global responsibilities and foreign policy interests dictate that we protect weapons so horrible and barbaric that virtually all our closest allies are seeking a global treaty to eliminate them without delay?”

I nervously awaited a formal reply. This was my first such message in more than two decades in the Foreign Service. But no response ever came. I later learned this non-reply was a compromise between those in Washington who wanted to reprimand me and those who wanted to thank me. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, who had taken office just months before my dissent cable, later told me that my voice from the field helped spur a reassessment of our policy amid the public advocacy of U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), soon-to-be Nobel Peace laureate Jody Williams, Vietnam Veterans of America co-founder Bobby Muller, Landmine Survivors Network’s Jerry White, Human Rights Watch’s Steve Goose, and others.

Regrettably, the United States did not sign the Ottawa Treaty. But the U.S. government has conformed to its basic precepts under Republican and Democratic administrations since the Ottawa Convention came into force in 1999 – at least until Trump’s recent order. And we ramped up aggressive anti-mine programs in Angola, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Cambodia, Rwanda, Laos, Central America, and 30 other regions.

We helped demine the most dangerous minefields, train humanitarian deminers, teach civilians how to identify and avoid these weapons, invest in new technologies to assist mine detection and clearances, and provide landmine survivors with medical, vocational, legal, and psychosocial support. The efforts of State Department colleagues Rick Inderfurth, Pat Patierno, Jim Lawrence, and Stacy Bernard Davis, among others, deserve recognition.

Reward for Principled Dissent

Was I punished for my dissent? Quite the opposite. In 1998, when I left Angola, President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appointed me to serve as their Special Representative for Global Humanitarian Demining.

In that role, I addressed the U.N. General Assembly in November 2000, to describe the compromise on U.S. APL policy. I welcomed the international commitment to protect civilians around the world from landmines embodied in the Ottawa Treaty and saluted the governments, international organizations, and civic groups who made up the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. I noted that the United States had destroyed 3.3 million landmines and permanently banned the export or transfer of anti-personnel landmines. We would also end the use of all APL outside of South Korea by 2003. We committed to seek alternatives to landmines and adhere to the treaty if we found and deployed these alternatives.

No, this was not where treaty advocates – including me – wanted to end up, but it was as much as the market would bear. With some modifications, it remained a rational, nuanced, morally defensible, and bipartisan stance until Trump’s irresponsible reversal last month.

And in an instructive postscript, Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2001 named me deputy director of policy planning. One of my principal and proudest duties: to monitor and encourage use of the State Department’s Dissent Channel. Yes, some people get it.

IMAGE:  An Afghan orthopaedic technician makes artificial limbs in a workshop at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hospital for war victims and the disabled in Kabul, on March 27, 2019. According to the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), casualties from landmines and so-called “explosive remnants of war” soared five-fold between 2012 and 2017. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Ambassador Donald Steinberg

Fellow at Our Secure Future foundation, senior fellow at InterAction, and co-chair of the Women’s Refugee Commission. Former U.S. Ambassador to Angola and Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Former member of the U.N. Secretary General’s Civil Society Advisory Group on Women, Peace and Security. Advisory board, Global Governance Forum.