A top House Republican said Sunday he agreed with the Biden administration’s contentious decision to supply cluster munitions to Ukraine as part of a new military aid package, while a prominent progressive Democrat said the US risks “losing our moral leadership” over the move.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, and Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, made their remarks in separate interviews with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
McCaul said the weapons “would be a game-changer” in the war in Ukraine, noting that “Russia is dropping with impunity cluster bombs” on Ukrainian territory.
“All the Ukrainians and (President Volodymyr) Zelensky are asking for is to give them the same weapons the Russians have to use in their own country against Russians who are in their own country,” he said. “They do not want these to be used in Russia.”
‘That’s crossing a line’: Democrat responds to Biden’s decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine
The munitions, also known as cluster bombs, spread shrapnel that is designed to kill troops or take out armored vehicles such as tanks, but they also scatter “bomblets” across large areas that can fail to explode on impact and can pose a long-term risk to anyone who encounters them, similar to landmines.
Over 100 countries, including the UK, France and Germany, have outlawed the munitions under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but the US and Ukraine are not signatories to the ban – a point that McCaul emphasized on Sunday.
Biden said in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that it was a “difficult decision” but he was ultimately convinced to send the controversial weapons because Kyiv needs ammunition in its counteroffensive against Russia.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told ABC on Sunday that the administration was “mindful of the concerns about civilian casualties” but reiterated that Ukrainian forces plan to use the cluster munitions to “defend their own territory, hitting Russian positions.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan sought Sunday to downplay any concern that Biden’s decision would present any “fracture” with allied countries that oppose the use of such weapons ahead of the president’s high-stakes trip to Europe.
“We have heard nothing from people saying this cast doubt on our commitment, this cast doubt on coalition unity or this cast doubt on our belief that the United States is playing a vital and positive role as leader of this coalition in Ukraine,” he told reporters traveling with Biden en route to London.
Lee, however, told CNN that cluster bombs “should never be used. That’s crossing a line.”
“They don’t always immediately explode. Children can step on them,” she said. “The president’s been doing a good job managing this war, this Putin aggressive war against Ukraine. But I think that this should not happen.”
Asked by Tapper if the US could be engaging in war crimes by providing the weaponry, Lee said, “What I think is that we … would risk losing our moral leadership because, when you look at the fact that over 120 countries have signed the convention on cluster munitions saying that they should never be used, they should never be used.”
The remarks underscore the sensitivity surrounding cluster munitions, which US forces began phasing out in 2016 because of the danger they pose to civilians.
Another Democrat, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, said Sunday he appreciated that the Biden administration “grappled with the risk and reached agreements with the Ukrainian military” about the use of the munitions but he has “real qualms” about the decision.
“There is an international prohibition. And the US says, ‘But here is a good reason to do something different.’ It could give a green light to other nations to do something different as well,” Kaine said.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, welcomed the sending of cluster munitions to Ukraine but said the US was taking “too long” to supply weapons to the country.
“The best thing we can do now is to step up,” Barrasso told Fox News. “It just does seem to me there is so much delay in the activity of this administration and ultimately getting to Ukraine what they need.”
Lee and McCaul also diverged Sunday on the chaotic 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has reemerged as a topic after the recent release of a State Department report that found that both the Trump and Biden administrations’ decisions to pull all US troops from Afghanistan had detrimental consequences.
“I don’t believe the (Biden) administration deserves any blame for this,” Lee said.
“We have to remember that Donald Trump made this agreement with the Taliban. Secondly, the Trump administration literally gutted our State Department and our diplomatic corps. I believe that the State Department and those who were involved in the end of the Afghanistan war, which should have happened before then, I believe, did the best they could,” Lee said.
McCaul called the report “damaging” and said the entire ordeal was a “huge foreign policy blunder.”
The report was publicly released on June 30, more than a year after the 90-day review of the evacuation was completed and includes findings around the tumultuous final weeks of the US presence in Afghanistan, as well as several recommendations for improvement moving forward.
The Biden administration’s frenzied withdrawal after 20 years of US involvement has come under immense scrutiny by predominantly Republican lawmakers. However, accusations about who was responsible for the chaotic final weeks have fallen largely along party lines, with Republicans pointing fingers at the Biden administration and Democrats, including the White House, casting blame on the Trump administration for the deal that set the US withdrawal into motion.
Asked on June 30 about the report and whether he admitted there were “mistakes during the withdrawal,” Biden noted that he had vowed that al Qaeda “wouldn’t be there.”
“I said we’d get help from the Taliban,” the president said. “I was right.”
McCaul on Sunday said the president’s response was “devoid of reality.”
“It’s a little bit eerie that a president of the United States would … be so disillusioned about what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan, the idea that al Qaeda is gone,” the Texas Republican said. “He just really wants to sweep Afghanistan under the rug.”
Since retaking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban has rolled back decades of progress on human rights.
According to a recent report by United Nations experts, the Taliban has committed “egregious systematic violations of women’s rights,” by restricting their access to education and employment and their ability to move freely in society.
This story has been updated with additional information.