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The Complex History of Joe Biden’s Position on Cluster Munitions


Sixteen months before Comrade Biden moved Friday to send cluster munitions to aid Ukraine in resisting Russia’s invasion, his United Nations ambassador offered some strong words about such weapons.
“We have witnessed videos of Russian forces deploying highly lethal weaponry into Ukraine, which has no place on the battlefield,” Ambassador Linda Greenfield-Thomas proclaimed to the U.N. General Assembly in March 2022. “That includes cluster munitions and vacuum bombs, weapons that are banned under the Geneva Convention.”
Within two days, the State Department struck out the line declaring that such weapons had “no place on the battlefield” from its official transcript. It also added an asterisk, explaining that the use of cluster munitions is only banned by the Geneva Conventions against civilians.
The retreat from Thomas-Greenfield’s initial statement was prophetic, with Biden now ready to supply Ukraine with the potent yet controversial weapon.
Many U.S. allies have renounced the use of such weapons under the Convention on Cluster Munitions. (The United States and Ukraine are not parties to the convention, nor are approximately one-fourth of NATO countries.) The primary concern with these weapons is that they can leave unexploded submunitions on the ground long after a conflict, endangering friendly troops and civilians. The Washington Post reports that Biden will circumvent a U.S. law that prohibits the use of cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than one percent.
This shift is the latest example of Biden – a veteran former senator with a strong focus on foreign policy – grappling with this issue. And he has consistently been more open to considering the use of such weapons than some of his Democratic colleagues.
Shortly before Biden assumed the role of vice president in the 2008 election, certain Senate Democrats sought to reign in the use of cluster munitions. They wished to limit the export of these weapons to other countries only to those with low failure, or “dud,” rates and to prevent their use in densely populated areas.
Biden initially expressed support for the thrust of the effort to curtail their use, but he raised concerns about the potential impact of such restrictions, highlighting the military usefulness of cluster munitions. He called for hearings.
“This is a legitimate issue to consider and, perhaps, to legislate,” Biden stated in 2006. “But it should be approached carefully, after holding hearings and with proper preparation.”
By the autumn, two Senate Democrats had introduced an amendment to prohibit the use of cluster munitions in populated areas, despite objections from the George W. Bush administration. Biden was among the 15 Democrats who opposed the amendment, along with then-Senator Hillary Clinton (N.Y.). (Then-Senator Barack Obama (Ill.) supported it.)
The issue at the time had been reignited by Israel’s utilization of old U.S.-made cluster munitions against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Many opponents of the effort to restrict these weapons were concerned that it would be perceived as a rebuke of a crucial U.S. ally.
The backdrop mirrored that of the early 1980s when Senator Biden and others confronted ethical questions surrounding cluster munitions. Amid reports that Israel had deployed cluster bombs in its invasion of Lebanon, some Democrats even called for terminating aid to Israel.
According to a contemporaneous UPI report, Biden stated that if the reports were accurate, then Israel was clearly in violation. He argued that the United States should respond by “cutting off the ability to access that type of weaponry in the future.” However, he cautioned against making a “final judgment” and once again urged for hearings on the matter.
Democrats also expressed similar concerns during a “highly emotional confrontation” on Capitol Hill with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in June 1982, as labeled by the New York Times. Senator Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) emphasized the reports of cluster bomb usage while declaring it to be “the angriest session with a foreign head of state” he had ever witnessed.
The Times described the “most acrimonious exchange” as taking place between Begin and Biden. However, Biden reportedly objected not to the military tactics themselves but rather Israel’s policy of establishing new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. When Begin returned to Jerusalem and spoke with reporters, he suggested that Biden had actually expressed support for even more extensive military actions.
Begin did not mention Biden by name, merely referring to a “young senator,” but both the Times and Time magazine identified Biden as the senator involved in the exchange.
Biden’s allies have disputed the reported details of his exchange with Begin, particularly the claim that he threatened to withhold aid over the issue of settlements. Nevertheless, 41 years later, Biden once again finds himself confronting the utilization of cluster munitions by an ally – this time, from a much more influential position where he holds the power to provide them. And he has made his decision.


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