On September 28, 2016, Congress overrode President Obama’s veto of a bill for the first time in his presidency. The bill, titled the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), allows families of those killed in 9/11 to sue the Saudi Arabian government for the role they are believed to have played in the terror attacks. Although the bill is controversial, it had unusually strong bipartisan support in Congress. It was never debated in the House or Senate, instead being pushed forward by a bipartisan coalition; the legislation ultimately passed 97-to-1 in the Senate and 348-to-77 in the House.
It has long been believed by people across the United States that the Saudi Arabian government had a role in 9/11, an accusation the Saudi government has consistently denied. This belief stems from the fact that 15 of the 19 men responsible for the attacks were Saudis. Though the 9/11 Commission found no evidence that senior Saudi officials had any role in the attacks, lawmakers and citizens across the United States continue to question the ruling. And now, just after the 15th anniversary of the attacks, lawmakers have decided to take action.
Many people think that the passage of this bill reflects the diminishing influence of Saudi Arabia in U.S. affairs and is part of a larger movement to re-examine America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. While a re-examination of this relationship is absolutely in order (as we will look at later), it is unclear if this bill is the best way forward. President Obama opposed the bill, believing that it would start a dangerous precedent and open the U.S. up to attacks from foreign countries. JASTA amends a 1976 law that gives other countries immunity from American lawsuits, and now allows nations to be sued if they are found to have played any role in a terror attack that killed Americans in the United States. While this is absolutely a worthy and important change, the President and his supporters think that this change makes America vulnerable to similar lawsuits from other countries. Already, an Iraqi group has used the amended language of the law to demand payment from the United States government for the invasion of Iraq.
The Saudi government stated back in May, when the bill initially passed in the House, that it might liquidate hundreds of billions of dollars in American assets if the bill becomes law, which could lead to severe economic fallout between the two countries. They have also responded since the bill’s passage, calling it a threat to Saudi sovereignty. A provision in the bill does allow the attorney general to intervene in the lawsuits against the Saudis and get a judge to stop settlement of the case as long as there are continuing discussions with the Saudis about a possible resolution. However, it seems unlikely that the Saudis would be willing to engage in open dialogue on the attacks, as they have always claimed they had no involvement. Opening dialogue now could look to the international community like an admission of guilt.
The United States has had a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia since the 1930s, despite the clear and persistent clash in values between the two nations. The alliance originally emerged due to an American need for Saudi Arabian oil and throughout the last several decades, this need has outweighed any costs of the relationship. The United States’ increased use of domestic energy sources in the last few years has made Saudi oil, one of the major pillars of the relationship between these countries, less essential. Obviously, this is not the only aspect that ties the countries—American businesses have invested heavily in Saudi Arabia, and the countries have both tried to work to establish regional stability in the Middle East – but oil has consistently remained the crux of the relationship. As this pillar has declined in importance, Americans have had more of an opportunity to notice the deep divides present between the countries.
There are several issues on which the two countries have never fully agreed: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, human rights, women’s rights, the state of democracy in Saudi Arabia, the country’s financing of terrorism. Saudi Arabia strongly disagreed with and condemned the Iran nuclear deal. The United States strongly opposes Wahhabism, the fundamentalist strand of Islam present in Saudi Arabia. This relationship began because of common interests, but has never been based on common values, making it difficult to sustain.
Consequently, a re-evaluation of the alliance is in order, and has been for quite some time. As a country that claims to be the pillar of democracy and human rights, the United States should hold its allies around the world to higher standards. The JASTA bill may be one way of doing this, but it may not be the right way – it exposes the United States to a lot of potential attacks on past actions, and may end up vilifying the United States more than it does Saudi Arabia. Discussions about the future of this alliance will likely be important for the next president, but to date we have heard little about how either candidate will address this topic. It is essential to keep this discussion going through the next presidency, and hope that whoever succeeds President Obama will actively expect more from our allies, and ensure their dedication to the values that we stand for.