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Published: Wednesday, 3/3/2004

The land mine menace

THE Bush Administration has offered up a couple of fine initiatives in the worldwide effort to end the use of land mines - a cause dear to the heart of the late Princess Diana and a cause that won Vermonter Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Land mines a joint Nobel peace prize in 1997.

But it disappoints that the United States won't sign a treaty banning these mines, as 150 other nations, including all other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have done. The treaty, which former President Bill Clinton also wouldn't endorse, bans production, use, stockpiling, and transfer of these antipersonnel mines.

The administration's stance is peculiar given that we've not used land mines since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and mines planted long ago in South Korea to prevent an invasion from North Korea are, as of now, to be eliminated by 2010. It is also odd in light of the fact that of the estimated 60 million land mines extant in 60 countries, most were not planted by us, though we have a stockpile of 18 million of them.

There is a plus side. Mr. Bush is to propose a 50 percent increase in spending, or $70 million, in fiscal 2005 to help 40 other countries remove land mines that are killing more than 10,000 people a year while serving no deterrent purpose.

He has also committed the nation to scrapping all land mines that don't have automatic timing devices that make them self-destruct, a first. Use of land mines aimed at destroying vehicles will require presidential consent. Both steps are excellent.

Within a year the United States will put at least eight grams of iron into stockpiled land mines to make them more easily detectable by minesweepers once deployed. That's also good. But as for ending the use of all land mines, even those that self-destruct, Mr. Bush has set a sorry example for the world and contributed to the reluctance of powers like China and Russia to join in limiting use of these weapons.

A big plus is the commitment to stop using "dumb" mines triggered by touch. Instead our military will employ only those with disarming timing devices that self-destruct. There was also no talk of getting rid of the 3 million-unit stockpile of "dumb" land mines that is part of the 18 million total.

The complex decision represents an effort by the administration to have its cake and eat it, to answer the humanitarian calls of the likes of Princess Diana and Jody Williams, yet still bow to the Pentagon.

The President could have shown the world a creative, positive leadership in arms control and humanitarianism. He did something, just not enough.

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