Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Second thoughts

Facing worldwide criticism for insisting on a law that jeopardises historic US ties with Saudi Arabia, some key Congress members are now backtracking, reports Khaled Dawoud

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world
Al-Ahram Weekly

Just one day after both houses of Congress voted to override US President Barack Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), pushing it into law, the United States’ long-time oil-rich Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, began bristling.

Saudi used its worldwide influence to gain condemnation of the law from many world countries, amid unspecified warnings of retaliatory action that could go as far as withdrawing hundreds of billions of dollars kept in US bank reserves for decades, and warnings that even US interests could be threatened if other countries started issuing similar laws to prosecute American soldiers involved in war crimes, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, most experts excluded that Riyadh could proceed on that path of confrontation, considering its near total dependence on US support to maintain security in the volatile oil-rich Arab Gulf region, and expectations that the law itself might be amended in the future after the election of a new president 8 November.

Many observers believe Congress rushed to override Obama’s veto for merely election purposes, to avoid charges they were sympathetic to the sufferings of nearly 3,000 Americans who were killed in the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Fifteen out of the 19 attackers who blew up the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon near Washington DC were Saudis, putting the conservative kingdom, that has long been charged by Western nations as providing support to extremist groups under the claim of spreading strict Islam, as a prime target for JASTA that allows US courts to sue any alleged sponsors of terror, whether governments or entities, and not only the individuals directly involved in terrorist acts.

However, only a day after voting to override Obama, some lawmakers slowly began realising that the controversial bill might bring some unintended consequences, reluctantly giving the president free license to say, “I told you so.”

The top two Republicans in Congress said they were open to changing the legislation. But with lawmakers going home for a six-week recess, any modifications are on hold until a new US president takes office in January.

Statements made by Democrats and Republicans showed that both lawmakers and the White House made a key miscalculation: That the US House of Representatives would sit on the bill, making passage impossible. That gave the Senate license to pass the measure in May without the expectation it would become law.

One senior Democratic aide told Bloomberg news agency that this appeared to cause the White House not to mount a full-court press against the bill, beyond its frequent criticism during the daily press briefing.

“I wish we had all focussed on this earlier,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee told reporters this week. He said he regrets that he didn’t try harder to block its passage absent more study and changes.

“Everybody was aware of who the potential beneficiaries were but nobody had really focussed on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships, and I think it was just a ball dropped,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters Thursday, saying it was worth discussing possible fixes after the elections.

“I wish the president — I hate to blame everything on him and I don’t, but it would have been helpful if we had a discussion on this much earlier than last week,” he added.

The White House, which labelled the Senate’s 97-1 override vote as the most embarrassing action of that chamber in decades, scoffed at the criticism.

“Ignorance is not a defence,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, accusing Congress of developing “rapid-onset buyer’s remorse”.

The bill itself had been kicking around for several years, pushed by two powerful senators — John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican and Chuck Schumer of New York, appointed earlier this year as the next Democratic leader.

The White House quietly tried to put the brakes on the bill, according to a senior Democratic aide, but Schumer and Cornyn managed to persuade senators to drop their opposition, in part by adding a provision allowing a stay on lawsuits if the administration attests that the affected country is negotiating a settlement in good faith. 

A senior Republican aide said that both Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Corker and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham lifted holds they had placed on the bill after the tweaks, only to later have second thoughts.

So despite warnings from Saudi Arabia that the bill would damage relations with the kingdom, senators suddenly passed it in May by a voice vote, before the White House had even issued a formal veto threat.

The minor changes didn’t satisfy the White House, which warned the measure could still put US soldiers, diplomats and spies at risk. 

House leaders decided to get the bill on the floor two days ahead of the 15th anniversary of the 11 September attacks. Right before that vote, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and other House members held a ceremony on the steps of the Capitol to mark the occasion.

When President Obama vetoed the measure, he issued a detailed explanation, warning that allowing such lawsuits against foreign governments based solely upon allegations by private litigants may lead to suits against the United States or US officials for actions taken by members of an armed group that received US assistance, misuse of US military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received US training, even if the lawsuits are without merit.

Corker and Graham last week told reporters they would prefer the override vote to happen after the elections and talked of narrowing the bill further, but neither objected when McConnell went to the floor to ask for— and receive — unanimous consent to hold the vote on Wednesday, 28 September.

Even though the Saudis waged a high-profile lobbying campaign, including having several chief executive officers of large companies call senators, Saudi influence on Capitol Hill isn’t what it was a decade ago, when gas prices were far higher, the senior Democratic aide said.

Even so, with the bill becoming law, Ryan said he wants to see if it can be fixed. “We want to make sure that the 9/11 victims and their families have their day in court,” he told reporters. “At the same time, I would like to think there may be some work to be done to protect our service members overseas from any kind of… any kind of legal changes that could occur, any kind of retribution.”

Corker said he hoped a fix could make it into a year-end, must-pass omnibus spending bill, or perhaps be enacted next year.

Saudi Arabia wants the law changed. “It is our hope that wisdom will prevail and that Congress will take the necessary steps to correct this legislation in order to avoid the serious unintended consequences that may ensue,” the Saudi embassy in Washington said in a statement.

But Schumer dismissed the idea that governments other than Saudi Arabia are particularly concerned by what he and other sponsors have insisted is a narrow exemption to sovereign immunity.

“I’m willing to look at any proposal they make, but not any that hurt the families,” Schumer said. Nor would he support limiting the bill to the 11 September attacks. “That tells the Saudis, go ahead and do it again, we won’t punish you,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Riyadh, there were angry reactions. “JASTA is a wake-up call for the Saudis, that it is time to revisit the concept of the alliance with the United States,” Saudi political sociologist and writer Khaled Al-Dakhil said.

Some reports said Riyadh might also cut off some of its airspace it allowed the Pentagon to use for military operations, as well as reconsidering some major arms deals that will fuel the American economy. Saudi newspapers also demanded that their government reconsider cooperation with Washington in combatting terror in different world countries, including Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Many in the Saudi government reacted to Congress’ override on 28 September with anger and disappointment; some feel betrayed after decades of the Arab Gulf nation standing by the United States on a great number of issues, some that seriously weakened Riyadh’s own security in a region where most governments oppose Washington’s policies.

Though JASTA doesn’t specifically target Saudi Arabia, it’s most immediate impact favours relatives of 9/11 victims who desire to take civil action against the Saudis over purported ties to some of the 9/11 plotters.

“Because the bill has been tied so strongly to 9/11 and Saudi Arabia, it helps feed this perception that Saudi Arabia is somehow responsible for Islamic terrorism,” Saudi businessman Faisal Bin Farhan said. “And that to me is more worrying than any direct effect of the law itself.”

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