The Missed Opportunity of JASTA

The bill is little more than congressional grandstanding: at best pointless, and at worst damaging to American interests.

September 30, 2016 • Commentary
This article appeared on The Hill (Online) on September 30, 2016.

In the course of delivering its first veto override to President Obama, Congress upheld a bill that would permit U.S. citizens to sue the Saudi government in connection with the 9/11 terror attacks.

It might be tempting to view this vote as a long‐​overdue rebuke of Saudi Arabia for its problematic foreign and domestic policies. But the bill is little more than congressional grandstanding: at best pointless, and at worst damaging to American interests. Policymakers should indeed rethink our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but this is not the way to do it.

On Wednesday, the Senate overrode President Obama’s veto of the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid casting the only dissenting vote. Shortly thereafter, the House of Representatives voted 348–77 in favor of the bill, overturning the President’s veto. The override was a clear disappointment for the White House, which had lobbied hard against the bill, arguing that although it was ostensibly narrow in scope, it could set a wider precedent in international law.

Indeed, the best outcome from the JASTA bill would be that it is ineffectual. There is little evidence of any Saudi government involvement in the 9/11 plot that would stand up in court, and victims are unlikely to achieve the verdicts they seek. And as many Senators have quietly acknowledged, the bill sets a precedent, making it easier for citizens of other states to sue U.S. officials, and making it harder for America’s diplomats and military abroad to do their jobs. The United States is particularly vulnerable to such legal actions as a result of its widespread global presence.

Given this, it might be tempting to view the JASTA bill as largely symbolic. Indeed, in a period of substantial flux in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and with criticism of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy choices coming from increasingly diverse sources in Washington, the bill might be construed as a reprimand directed at Saudi leaders.

Yet the Senate defeated a much more effective bill — a resolution protesting U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia — by a substantial 71–27 margin just last week, while a similar resolution -blocking arms sales until Saudi Arabia reduces the humanitarian toll of its bloody war in Yemen — languishes in committee.

If nothing else, the cynicism with which many Senators have approached the JASTA bill makes it clear that their votes were motivated by political factors, not by national security considerations; a signed letter from 28 senators, written the same day as they cast their override votes, calls on the bill’s sponsors to work to ‘appropriately mitigate… unintended consequences.’

Indeed, if JASTA were truly designed as a rebuke of Saudi leaders, it is doubtful that President Obama, who has expressed his distaste for the U.S.-Saudi relationship perhaps more than any modern president, would have vetoed it.

Instead, the passage of the JASTA bill creates liabilities for U.S. foreign policy, while doing little to correct any of the myriad problems in today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship. There are in fact many reasons why policymakers might seek to reshape the U.S. security relationship with Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is well‐​known for its global promotion of a fundamentalist, extremist version of Islam, which has undoubtedly helped to foster violent extremism in the Middle East and elsewhere. There’s the ongoing Saudi‐​led, U.S.-backed military campaign in Yemen, which has produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and actively undermined U.S. counterterrorism goals in that country. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s active support for rebels in crises across the Middle East has increased violence in conflicts like Syria, and helped to destabilize the regional security situation.

The JASTA bill may be a wholly inadequate response to these concerns, but there are concrete steps that policymakers could take to improve the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

First, the Obama administration could end its support for the War in Yemen, acknowledging not only the conflict’s humanitarian and security costs, but the simple fact that it will not be resolved by military means.

Second, policymakers can seek to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, making future sales contingent on improvements in the country’s humanitarian record in Yemen, or on curtailing other unpleasant foreign policy excesses. These small steps have the potential to substantially improve the toxic nature of today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship.

In response to Wednesday’s veto override, the White House called the decision maybe “thesingle most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done” in over 30 years. That rejoinder is more than a little hyperbolic, but the JASTA bill is a poorly thought‐​out, overly politicized bill, and likely to cause future headaches for U.S. policymakers.

The biggest problem is the lost opportunity this bill represents. There are many problems in today’s dysfunctional U.S.-Saudi relationship; policymakers should be discussing them urgently. Sadly, the veto override did nothing to advance that conversation.

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