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Cluster Bombs and Double Standards

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015

Micah Zenko asks an important question about the differing U.S. responses to Russian and Saudi uses of cluster bombs:

If cluster munitions are “not good” for Russia to use in Syria, why are they acceptable for Saudi Arabia to use in Yemen, especially since there are many examples of civilian deaths caused by them?

The right answer is that it is wrong to use cluster bombs at all, because they are inherently indiscriminate weapons that pose an ongoing danger to the civilian population even after the fighting is finished. This is why they are banned by nearly a hundred states around the world. The reason why the U.S. treats their use by Russia and Saudi Arabia so differently is straightforward: when the Saudis use them in Yemen, they are using cluster munitions the U.S. has provided to them, and they are using them to attack areas controlled by rebels that the U.S. doesn’t support as part of a campaign backed by the U.S.

The use of these weapons is wrong in both cases, but it is only when U.S. proxies are coming under attack that the administration objects publicly to their use. Of course, the fact that the U.S. won’t hold the Saudis to the same standard makes it that much easier for other states to dismiss any criticism of the use of these weapons in other conflicts. But then the U.S. support for the intervention in Yemen puts it in a bind when it comes to criticizing the Saudis, since the U.S. is implicated in the Saudis’ attacks on civilian targets and their use of cluster bombs, and that is why there has been and will be virtually no public criticism of the Saudi-led campaign by this administration.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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