Moral Equivalence vs. Moral Leadership

A member of the Ukrainian Special Forces holds a Russian missile cassette that carried cluster bombs. The village and surrounding farm land is littered with missile cassette, some which did not explode. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

The controversy over the Biden administration’s decision to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions reminded me of my old boss William F. Buckley’s famous rejoinder to claims the United States and the Soviet Union were morally equivalent because they both possessed nuclear weapons and spent a lot on defense. His phrasing varied, but here’s the gist: If one man pushes an old lady in front of an oncoming bus and another man pushes an old lady out of the way of a bus, it’s wrong to describe them both as the sort of men who push old ladies around. 

Now, no one—except for fringe Putin apologists—is claiming we’re no better than the Russians. But a strange claim of moral equivalence is at play on the cluster munitions question.

One thing needs to be said first: These can be horrible weapons and people who want to ban them have defensible arguments on their side. “Cluster munition” or “cluster bomb” is a term for a whole family of weapons that can be dropped from planes or launched by artillery or rocket. Each device contains multiple, sometimes hundreds, of “submunitions” that disperse over a relatively large area. These submunitions, when working properly, detonate on impact. 

The key phrase is “working properly.” A fraction, sometimes a large fraction, don’t explode immediately. Instead, they lie dormant on—or under—the ground, becoming small landmines. Thinking they’re toys or souvenirs, children can pick them up only to be killed or maimed. Farmers, sometimes years after the conflict, have been killed by them. 

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