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Having the world's only remaining superpower take the lead in banning land mines apparently was too much to ask.

So, apparently, was having it join in at all. The United States wouldn't even go along as other major nations followed Canada's lead in agreeing on a treaty to ban the use and production of those crude and indiscriminate weapons.

The best that Washington can do now is approve Rep. Jack Quinn's congressional legislation to curb future U.S. use of the mines. Quinn's proposal would put the United States under a self-imposed partial ban, with exceptions to deal with concerns that caused the White House to thumb its nose at the international treaty.

Of course, as long as the world's mightiest nation reserves the right to carve out exemptions for itself, it will be hard to get other countries that are balking -- such as China and Russia -- to sign the international deal.

But instead of seeing that big picture, the Clinton administration listened to generals who not only wanted the right to keep using anti-personnel mines in Korea, but who also wanted to put off U.S. compliance for nine years beyond the 10-year time frame already outlined in the draft treaty.

Anti-personnel mines -- the kind to be banned by the treaty -- explode whenever anyone steps on them, whether a soldier, a child out playing or a farmer working a field. Renegade nations often plant them and then leave them behind. They keep killing unsuspecting civilians long afterward.

That's one reason the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation favored the international treaty. Not only were mines the leading cause of U.S. casualties in that war, but the foundation -- which supplies artificial limbs to Cambodians -- has seen what they do to populations afterward.

It was a meeting with the foundation's leader -- left in a wheelchair as a result of a mine -- that got the generally hawkish Quinn interested in this humanitarian issue. He notes the irony of the United States sending food aid to countries in which inhabitants can't harvest their own because they're afraid to go into mine-infested fields.

The treaty generally doesn't cover anti-tank mines, which are activated only by the heavy weight of a military vehicle. But the United States has claimed it must put anti-personnel mines around its anti-tank mines in Korea to stop enemy soldiers from removing the anti-tank explosives.

But it strains credulity to contend that the United States could not safeguard South Korea without using anti-personnel mines. Even if U.S mines are well-marked or deactivate automatically, American use of any mines will encourage smaller countries to continue using the less-sophisticated, unmarked versions that kill or maim 25,000 people a year.

The bill co-sponsored by Quinn, R-Hamburg, would not call for the removal of existing mines, as the treaty does. But it would stop the United States from planting new ones after Jan. 1, 2000.

The legislation seeks to placate the Pentagon with a loophole that would allow new mines on the Korean peninsula, but only in a declared war or emergency and only when the president certifies that their use would be "indispensable" in defending South Korea. In the meantime, it also would give defense officials six months to report to Congress on alternatives to the use of new mines there.

The bill from Quinn -- who backed the international treaty -- is a far cry from the total ban the United States should have led the way in approving. But with some 89 nations ready to sign the treaty in Ottawa in December after rejecting U.S. amendments, it's the next best thing.

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