Jul 11, 2023

Sending cluster bombs to Ukraine.

A demonstration cluster bomb from 1960. Image: U.S. Army
A demonstration cluster bomb from 1960. Image: U.S. Army

The controversial weapons are considered a threat to civilians.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

We're covering the debate on sending cluster bombs to Ukraine. Plus, a reader question about "free speech absolutism."

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Quick hits.

  1. Larry Nassar, the former sports doctor serving 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting U.S. gymnasts, was stabbed at least 10 times in a Florida prison. He is in stable condition. (The attack)
  2. Turkey agreed to advance Sweden's bid to join NATO, all but assuring a new member to the alliance. Turkey had previously sought assurances on its own efforts to join the European Union in exchange for voting Sweden into NATO. (The decision)
  3. Heavy rainfall across the northeast caused flash floods in New Hampshire, Vermont, and the Hudson Valley of New York. At least one person died while road closures and power outages were widespread, and President Biden declared a state of emergency in Vermont. (The floods)
  4. Hill Harper, the actor best known for his role in The Good Doctor, announced his plans to run for Sen. Debbie Stabenow's (D) seat in Michigan. (The announcement)
  5. On Tuesday, a grand jury in Georgia is being seated that could make the decision on whether to charge Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. (The decision)

Today's topic.

Cluster munitions to Ukraine. U.S. officials confirmed this weekend that they plan to provide Ukrainian troops with "cluster munitions," controversial explosive weapons that have been banned by 123 states and criticized by human rights groups for their tendency to indiscriminately kill civilians, even long after hostilities have ended.

The cluster bombs were included in a new weapons package for Ukraine unveiled on Friday. In the package were 155mm DPICMs, an acronym for dual-purpose improved conventional munitions. DPICMs, commonly referred to as cluster bombs or cluster munitions, are designed to disperse smaller bombs (or bomblets) over a larger area. They can be dropped from the sky or shot from ground or sea. They were first used in World War II for destroying multiple targets at once, and Ukraine has said the munitions would be useful for attacking Russian forces on the front lines.

Cluster bombs are considered exceptionally dangerous for two main reasons: 1) They are not precision weapons, but are instead designed to spread across a large area. This means they often kill unintended targets in the vicinity of a war zone. 2) The "bomblets" can fail to explode and then detonate months or years later, usually killing unintended targets.

President Biden said sending the weapons to Ukraine is a "difficult decision," while White House officials have responded to criticism by noting that the weapons they approved for Ukraine are newer versions that leave behind far fewer of the "duds" typically responsible for killing civilians. However, the International Committee of the Red Cross said "dud rates" — the percentage of bomblets that don't detonate upon impact — has been between 10% and 40% in recent conflicts. The Pentagon says these cluster munitions have dud rates below 2.35%.

Bomblets are also small, misshapen, and can be colorful, which has attracted children to pick them up and try to play with them, only to be maimed or killed. In 2021, there were 141 casualties from cluster bomb remnants, 97% of whom were civilians. Two thirds of those were children, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munitions Coalition.

Neither the United States, Russia, nor Ukraine are on the list of 123 states that have signed a treaty not to use cluster munitions. Interestingly, the decision has caused some Democrats in Congress to break with Biden, while the move has received tepid support from Congressional Republicans.

Despite how effective they can be on the battlefield, the U.S. had previously resisted the urge to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions. The Biden administration's ultimate decision to include them in the recent weapons package fits a pattern of initial resistance and then allowance — much like its decisions on long-range HIMARS rocket launchers, F-16 fighter jets, Abrams tanks, and Patriot air defense systems, all of which the administration initially resisted supplying before ultimately sending.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on the issue, with some strongly supporting the move and others opposed to or concerned about it.
  • Some argue that this should have happened earlier, and we must do what we can to ensure Ukraine's victory.
  • Others suggest this is a bridge too far, one that cedes a moral high ground to Russia.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said "Biden is right on cluster bombs for Ukraine."

"Our only criticism is that the decision could have done more good earlier," the board said. Cluster bombs "can be very effective, and Russia has used them against Ukrainians from the start of the war. But 123 countries—not including the U.S., Ukraine or Russia—have signed a treaty banning their use because the unexploded bomblets can harm civilians years after the fighting has ceased." U.S. bombs have a "dud rate" of 2.35%, compared to rates "up to 40%" for Russian cluster bombs.

Biden has been criticized by members of his own party who say the move blurs the moral high ground. But "Ukraine isn’t seeking to use these bombs against civilians," the board said. "It wants them because they are running out of other munitions and figures they can compensate for some of the advantage Russia still holds. The greater risk to Ukrainian civilians is from Russia’s invading army and indiscriminate weapons targeting. If you can’t see a moral distinction between Russia’s aggression and Ukraine’s use of cluster bombs for defense, then you have the blurred vision."

In American Thinker, James Poplar called it "yet another diplomatic and military failure" for an administration that can't shoot straight on foreign policy.

"Because cluster bombs release many small bomblets over a wide area, they pose risks to civilians both during attacks and afterward. Unexploded bomblets can kill or maim civilians and/or unintended targets long after a conflict has ended and are costly to locate and remove. The so-called failure rate of this unexploded ordnance, or ‘UXO’ in military parlance, can range from 2 percent to 40 percent or more and can remain active for many years, perhaps indefinitely," Poplar said. That's why they are "currently prohibited" by 123 states. "This action truly sickens my stomach and is morally repugnant."

"Having seen children in Asia with limbs missing due to cluster bombs strewn during the Vietnam conflict, this short-sighted action will haunt us for generations, and rightly so," Poplar said. "Another generation of children will have to suffer because of the ineptitude of decision-makers far removed from the field of battle, who take no responsibility for their callous and misguided actions. It is ethically and morally wrong to provide or even sanction the use of cluster munitions by a third party, just like chemical and biological weapons. Once the genie is out of the bottle, he is hard to put back in."

In Spectator, Mary Dejevsky wrote about the "troubling question" of Ukrainian cluster bombs.

When this war was only a few months old, Amnesty International published a report condemning cluster munitions use by Russia. There were "accusations of war crimes and western outrages against Russia's uncivilised way of war," Dejevsky said. "Now, a few days before the NATO summit convenes in Vilnius, President Biden has announced that the US will deliver similar weapons to Ukraine." Biden noted that Ukraine is running out of ammunition, and "the unspoken challenge to doubters was: do you really want to be complicit in Ukraine losing this war?"

It is "only fair" to note that no laws or conventions are being broken here. The U.S. is not in the treaty against cluster munitions, so it "is within its rights to provide these weapons." The ethics and optics are "another matter." If Ukraine really is low on munitions, it is in a double bind. "Not only is its war effort in trouble but any use of cluster bombs – even if they can be presented as more discriminating than those used by Russia – cannot but weaken its claim to occupy the moral high ground. In extending this help to its protege, the United States risks tainting it, too."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left oppose the move, arguing that the risk to civilians is too great.
  • Some argue this is a case of flawed moral logic that will make the war worse.
  • Others suggest it isn't just immoral, but also illegal.

The New York Times criticized the "flawed moral logic of sending cluster munitions to Ukraine."

President Biden said the U.S. will supply cluster munitions "until suppliers could catch up with Ukraine’s shortage of conventional artillery shells, a key weapon in the static warfare in eastern and southern Ukraine," the board noted. With Ukraine using up ordinary artillery shells at a huge rate (the United States alone has sent more than two million rounds to Ukraine), the cluster munitions, of which the United States has a bountiful supply, could give Ukrainian forces an advantage in prying the Russians from their trenches and fortifications along the 620-mile-long front." Besides, Russia and Ukraine have been using their own cluster munitions from the outset of the war.

"This is a flawed and troubling logic," the board said. "In the face of the widespread global condemnation of cluster munitions and the danger they pose to civilians long after the fighting is over, this is not a weapon that a nation with the power and influence of the United States should be spreading." However useful, the rules-based international order has drawn a red line on weapons that pose a "severe and lingering risk to noncombatants." Cluster munitions in this conflict have already led to "at least dozens of civilian deaths and serious injuries." It is "Ukraine’s decision to choose what weapons it uses in its defense, it is for America to decide which weapons to supply. "

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown said the war in Ukraine is already horrific, but the U.S. is "set to make it worse."

"Sending such weapons will not only undercut much of the moral high ground the West has taken in the conflict, but it will also threaten the safety of Ukrainian civilians. Those costs would make any victory against dug-in Russian forces a pyrrhic one," Brown wrote. "That heavy toll on civilians is why cluster munitions are banned under international law... some congressional Democrats support banning the export of the weapons altogether, which had the Biden administration reaching out last week to lay the groundwork among allies to try to smooth things over." Of course, "the situation in Ukraine is a little different from most."

"This isn’t a case like Yemen, where Saudi Arabia rained down U.S.-supplied cluster munitions for years," he said. "In Ukraine, the civilians who would be at risk are the very people the Ukrainians are trying to protect. Any cleanup campaign would fall on Kyiv to undertake once the war is over. But no matter what promises Ukraine makes about how these weapons will be used, the use of cluster munitions in any theater isn’t worth the price. This is a decision the Pentagon should rethink immediately, before even one of these weapons can be shipped off to the front lines."

In The Washington Post, former U.S. senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and current senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) wrote about why they are opposed to the decision.

"This is a serious mistake," they wrote. "We voted for billions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine and strongly believe we must continue to help the Ukrainian people defend themselves against Russian aggression. But supplying Kyiv with cluster munitions would come at an unsupportable moral and political price. Knowing that these weapons cause indiscriminate terror and mayhem, both of us — like many others in the international community — have worked for years to end their use."

They "undeniably" offer battlefield advantages, but "using them would compound the already devastating impact of the war on civilians and Ukrainian troops, with effects lasting for years to come." In Laos and Vietnam, cluster munitions deployed over 50 years ago "continue to maim and kill civilians." While modern U.S. munitions have lower dud rates, "those that fail to detonate can be activated by anyone who encounters them, whether a child or a Ukrainian soldier or anyone else." The decision also violates a law "one of us wrote" that prohibits the transfer of cluster munitions "with a failure rate greater than 1 percent."

My take.

  • I agree that this is a very difficult decision to make, and there are some strong arguments for Ukraine’s right to use cluster bombs.
  • But there is a difference between approving of Ukraine using them and approving of the U.S. supplying them.
  • Ultimately, this is another chance for the U.S. to take the moral high ground and set a standard beyond this war, one it unfortunately is choosing not to take. 

Throughout this war, I've been a pretty staunch advocate of Ukraine's right to fight like hell — by almost any means necessary — to protect its land and independence. In my most recent piece to that effect (in May), I wrote about not holding Ukraine to ridiculous standards that we aren't holding Russia to.

To that end, I think the best argument for this transfer goes something like this: Cluster bombs are already being used in the war by Russia and Ukraine. The cluster bombs being sent to Ukraine are far safer for civilians than the ones both sides are using now. And Ukraine is making the decision to use them in their own territory — perhaps the most significant point in all of this. Ultimately, they plan to win the war, and they are accepting the risk these munitions might pose to their own civilians in order to achieve that goal. My guess is most Ukrainians are probably on board for such a plan.

I agree with the president that this is a difficult decision. Yet, even with all of the above taken into account, I still think it’s a mistake.

There is a subtle but important distinction here: I believe Ukraine is well within their rights, legally and morally, to use these weapons. But the question of whether we should supply them to Ukraine is separate. It's true that the United States did not sign the treaty against using cluster bombs. It's also true that we should have. After all, it is mostly American-made cluster munitions that have caused so much civilian horror over the last few decades.

Perhaps the most poignant note on all this came from Sens. Merkley and Leahy, who pointed out (under "What the left is saying") the fact that our cluster bombs are still going off in Laos and Vietnam. 50 years later. Sure, these modern weapons might be more reliable — but we are going to send a lot of them, which means there will still be a lot of unexploded bomblets scattered throughout eastern Ukraine

Each cluster bomb that opens in midair can release 72 small grenades to explode on impact. Let's say, conservatively, we send 100 cluster bombs to Ukraine (I imagine it will be orders of magnitude more than that). That's 7,200 bomblets, and with a dude rate of roughly 2.5% that amounts to around 180 unexploded land mines sitting in Ukrainian territory from just 100 cluster bombs alone.

Again: I understand Ukraine's desire for cluster munitions, and I believe the Ukrainian military leaders who think it will help them open up new angles for winning this war. But we are talking about a decision that will be felt for decades — well beyond the end of the war, and potentially well beyond the borders of Ukraine.

The United States has the blessed and cursed position of being a world leader in all things war. The reality we face is that when ghoulish, authoritarian leaders like Putin invade a sovereign country, we are expected to come to the rescue. It's also true that we sometimes act like the authoritarian and ghoulish leaders, invading sovereign nations on absurdly concocted premises. This was an opportunity to distinguish ourselves morally from the same leaders we condemn. It was an opportunity to stake out a high ground that could set a standard well beyond this war, but we’ve opted against it.

I expect we will — and should be — judged accordingly.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: How do you reconcile your views that could be seen as almost "free speech absolutism" with the consequences it can sometimes have? Ideally you would be right and anything that is particularly wrong or crazy would get drowned out, but we do see unneeded suffering amongst people as a result of misinformation. Average election workers facing threats to their lives comes to mind. I recall you following the guidelines of not naming mass shooters due to the contagion effect, but do you see the need for similar attempts to hold back in any other topics or forms of speech?

— Bill, from Wayne, New Jersey

Tangle: In the past, I've said things like "I'm something approaching a free speech absolutist." I say that because I oppose nearly all kinds of censorship both by the government and corporations, hence my arguments for combating misinformation and my belief we should stop calling everything a conspiracy.

But I'm also careful not to say that I am a free speech absolutist, especially given that this term is pretty hard to define anymore. Elon Musk has called himself a "free speech absolutist," which in the strictest sense should mean that he believes people should always be able to say whatever they want. He has since clarified that he meant he is against "censorship that goes far beyond the law" — though he would ultimately muddy those waters, as well. Musk’s struggle to stick to a consistent view on free speech underscores why I’mcareful about describing my own views.

The law already restricts some kinds of speech as unlawful. Yes, the First Amendment guarantees our right to free speech, and that's something that I think we all value and support. But that doesn't extend to "true threats," a category of speech that includes incitement to violence or symbolic acts like cross-burning. It also means that I can't, as a journalist, knowingly publish lies or falsehoods. Both examples you listed — spreading misinformation and threatening election workers — are covered by these unlawful exceptions to speech, and I think that's a good thing.

You mention how we don't name mass shooters in Tangle due to the contagion effect, and that kind of policy is an example of "self-censorship." A lot of conservative commentators like to highlight how common this is in left-leaning environments, like college campuses, and I've echoed their criticisms repeatedly.

But self-censorship is a pretty common and necessary social norm. As a journalist, I won't endorse candidates or name mass shooters, and in my social life I'm not going to talk about certain opinions I have with my friends that I'm certain will offend them (like bringing up gun rights with someone whose family member was recently shot).

So your question is actually pretty straightforward for me to answer: I'm not actually an "absolutist", I think the examples you listed are (and should be) against the law, and there are unending examples of when it's good to hold back an urge to say something insensitive.

There are times when finding the line is a bit trickier. In the Los Angeles Times story on Musk linked above, Brian Merchant writes about how Musk banned Kanye West (now Ye) shortly after allowing him back onto the platform for posting a Star of David that looked like a swastika. In these instances of legal but broadly offensive speech there can be a lot of gray area, and I think it's important to recognize that reasonable people can disagree on a case-by-case basis on what kinds of non-legal consequences are appropriate in those situations. Personally, I lean very strongly in favor of letting that kind of speech live and be criticized.

Under the radar.

A new U.S. Geological Survey report indicates that at least 45% of tap water in the U.S. is contaminated with so-called "forever chemicals." These synthetic compounds, known collectively as PFAS, don't break down in our bodies and accumulate in our water, food, and environment over time. Studies have found that high levels of exposure to them are linked to negative health impacts, including an increased risk of cancer. This research builds on previous findings that these chemicals are found in nonstick and water-repellant products like cookware and food packaging. Axios has the story.


  • 270 million. The estimated number of cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. in Laos.
  • 1973. The year of the last bomb that was dropped by the U.S. in Laos.
  • 80 million. The estimated number of unexploded bombs that were left in Laos.
  • ~50. As of 2018, the rough estimate of the number of people who were dying due to unexploded cluster bombs in Laos each year.
  • 728.5 million. The estimated number of "submunitions" in the U.S. stockpile.
  • 630. The estimated number of cluster munition attacks attributed to the U.S. in Syria between 2012 and 2018. 

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered Shinzo Abe's assassination.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the meeting between Prigozhin and Putin.
  • Disagreeing with me: We asked Tangle readers what metrics are the most important measures of climate change, and despite what I wrote in my take, Tangle readers ranked "Global Record Temperatures" first with a score of 2.4 (lower numbers mean more important, ranked 1-5). Second was "Record Regional Temperatures" at 2.7, then "Global Average Temperatures" at 2.8, "Frequency of Extreme Weather Events" at 3.3, and finally Sea Level Height at 3.9.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Heads up — today kicks off Amazon's Prime Day, and a host of other competing sales events at major retailers.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of the decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

A community in Australia is rallying around an 11-year-old boy to replace his stolen bike. Zac, a resident of Manly, Australia, started an online apparel company called Manly 2095 to save up money for a $3,000 e-bike he had his eye on. Zac also sold his wares at the street market every weekday for several months, working to save money towards his goal. At the same time, he contributed 10 percent of his earnings to the children's charity Royal Far West to give back to the community. When his family's home was broken into and his bike was stolen, the community decided to give back to him, setting up a GoFundMe page to help Zac's mom, Renee, purchase him a new bike. "He's a really loved kid and a genuinely good human being... So I think that's another reason why the community have backed him," Renee said. Yahoo News has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.