You've probably heard this one: Obama voted for a ban on cluster bombs, those metallic pea pods of death that spray pocket-size, shiny bomblets all over the place, often to explode later when little kids step on them or try to pick them up. Obama was courageous and decent enough to cast a tough but moral vote at the risk of being portrayed as soft on terror by the right wing. Clinton voted against the ban; she supports blowing up children if it means accumulating a few more tough-on-terror brownie points as she claws her way to the top. Take your pick, alleged humanitarians: the saint or the baby-killer.
It's an argument that—unlike, say, a kid who steps on a cluster bomblet—has legs. A month ago, David Rees, author of the tragicomic strip “Get Your War On,” dropped it on The Huffington Post political blog, and it exploded across the net like, well, cluster bomblets across an Afghani schoolyard.
Rees would dislike that metaphor even more than you do. In his post, he reminded readers that it was the use of cluster bombs by the U.S. during Operation Enduring Freedom that led him to create GYWO seven years ago, that he donates royalties from book sales to a landmine removal team working in Afghanistan and that he supports an international ban on cluster bombs and landmines, which “wreak havoc on communities trying to recover from war.” Rees wrote that he decided to vote for Obama in the primary because he “did the right thing” on this critical issue when it wasn't politically expedient.
Since Rees' post, I've heard other Obama supporters cite the Democratic candidates' opposing senate votes on the cluster bomb ban as a deciding factor in choosing him over her.
The argument is persuasive, but it seems to lack complexity, doesn't it? I'm an Obama supporter myself, but there has to be more to this case than the Saint v. Baby Killer trope, doesn't there?
Let's take a look.
First, Rees' argument gets oversimplified by a lot of Obama enthusiasts. Rees correctly acknowledged that Senate Amendment No. 4882 was a step toward a ban, not an outright ban. The amendment would've “banned the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas.” But Rees didn't go into much detail.
The ban, an amendment to a defense budget bill, would've only curbed the use of 2007 funds for buying and selling cluster bombs and even contained a possible loophole—the military could still get the funds by showing that the Rules of Engagement had a written clause promising not to use the weapons in areas populated by civilians. Anyone paying attention to how war is waged knows that the rules in the book don't always govern how it goes down on the ground. Ask any soldier. And with a U.S. stockpile of millions of cluster bombs, if the spending ban had passed, the military would still have had a hefty supply to drop with no new rules governing their use. In other words, if the ban had passed, its effects likely would've been limited.
Furthermore, with the Republicans on the committee certain to vote down anything that could be perceived as limiting the ability of the troops to fight, there was no way the amendment would pass. The vote for the ban was purely symbolic.
But the argument against the ban was more than symbolic. It was also procedural. Clinton wasn't the only Democrat to vote against it. Most of them voted against it, including two other presidential contenders now out of the race, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd.
On the floor of the Senate right before the vote, Biden urged “the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold hearings on the issue of cluster munitions so that we can all gain a better understanding of how to maintain their usefulness while minimizing their risks.” He claimed to “share the concerns that prompted the introduction of this amendment” but was “not prepared to approve such a far-reaching measure without a clear legislative record regarding the need for it and its likely impact on U.S. and allied forces.”
By voting against the ban, Biden, and presumably Clinton and the majority of Democrats on the committee, were not callously arguing for indiscriminate use of cluster bombs on civilian targets, for God's sake. They were taking seriously the arguments of the Republicans on the committee, who were pointing out that cluster bombs had strategic value for American troops and that Congress shouldn't establish rules of engagement. These Democrats were arguing that the removal of an entire class of weaponry from the U.S. arsenal should involve extensive hearings before being enacted as legislation.
And yet, no matter how reasonable the Clinton vote on this issue is made to sound, I keep coming back to this wording in the amendment:
“… to ensure that the cluster munition will not be used in or near any concentrated population of civilians.”
And you know what I think? Screw procedure. And screw everyone on the committee who voted against this amendment. I'm still with the bill's sponsors, Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy, and with Obama, and the handful of other senators who voted for this amendment, and with David Rees, and with the 82 countries that signed an international ban on cluster bombs last month in New Zealand.
If it's symbolic, you make your vote symbolize what's right, not what makes you look patriotic to the warmongers. The right thing is to make it clear that you want us to win our battles against opponents without raining a bunch of tiny bombs that look like toys on neighborhoods full of children.
Oh, and another thing: Right around the time this happened, Clinton took PAC money from Textron, a company that makes cluster bombs. Obama doesn't take PAC money from anybody. Coincidence, maybe.
Sometimes simple claims subjected to scrutiny yield the same conclusions.