It was an event future historians may well regard as something of a watershed—but not solely for the obvious issues now being discussed by the media, argued over by lawyers, and scrutinized by national security experts.
On May 17, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which clears the way for lawsuits against foreign governments that provide tangible support to terrorists who cause injury or death in the U.S.
The unanimity leaves no doubt as to the intensity of the public sentiment; not surprisingly, Democrat Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton is on board as well, saying she supports JASTA.
And as JASTA heads for the vote by U.S. legislators, the president maintains his threat to veto it. The political battle lines are thus drawn across branches of the U.S. government; those that aren’t based on ideology.
But, despite the widespread support, legal and political contingencies becloud the picture. Critics maintain that JASTA opens the door wide to retaliation by foreign countries where very different standards of law apply.
While that is the broader concern in the U.S., the immediate debate centers on Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are not mentioned by name in the bill but they are alleged to have colluded in the 9/11 attacks, despite the 28-page document which clears the Saudi Kingdom of such a liaison. And even though Saudi Arabia is cleared of having a direct hand in the string of deadly terrorist attacks on U.S. soil some 15 years ago, the obvious direct target of JASTA remains the Kingdom.
In fact, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir has already warned that Saudi Arabia will sell off $750 billion in U.S. Treasury notes if JASTA is endorsed by U.S. legislators as law. That may just be posturing, since most economists agree that such a move would hurt the Saudis more than the U.S.
Idle or not, Al Jubeir’s threat underscores how dramatically the geopolitical sands have shifted.
To understand what’s going on beneath the turbid surfaces, we need to understand the greater picture, including the historical context of the U.S.-Saudi relations as well as the fundamental policy revision toward which the Obama administration has been steadily and inexorably moving.
Those relations date back to the understanding reached by the founding King Ibn Saud and President Franklin Roosevelt, when the U.S. committed itself to ensure Saudi Arabia’s security in exchange for an unimpeded flow of oil. Since then, differences over Israel have occasionally strained the bond—especially when Saudi Arabia’s late King Faisal imposed an oil embargo in the 1970s—but the fundamental agreement held its ground for the rest of the 20th century.
Then the world changed, and U.S. President Barack Obama capped on those changes.
Instinctively, Obama has been far more interested in the Pacific Rim as his main policy playground, managing the threat that China represents while leveraging economic and strategic assets that its ascendancy offers. At the same time, new energy opportunities, such as domestic oil and shale, encouraged the U.S.’s tilt toward Asia.
The Israeli-Palestinian struggle seems rather simple compared to the mélange of conflicting and dangerous interests that now roil the Middle East, especially with the rise of Daesh and the war in Syria, which Obama saw a quagmire into which he had no intention of sinking.
At the same time, to at least contain the regional conflagration, the Obama administration decided on a whole new tool: Iran. That nation, with its sizable middle class, could—regardless of the venomous hostilities that have strained its western relations since the Shah’s times—comprise half a bilateral axis.
For the U.S., this partner purportedly counter-balances the Russians and the Turks while providing crucial resources in the fight against terrorism. Whatever the arguable virtues or vices of the Iran treaty, there can be no doubt that a reduced role for Saudi Arabia was one of its inevitable results.
In the meantime, crystal-ball gazing is always a dubious exercise; all the more so in the Middle East. Hillary Clinton was secretary of state just prior to the Iranian rapprochement. If elected, her vision as president may be different than Obama’s. Regardless, Saudi dominance in the energy market seems permanently reduced. It is in that sense that we are well-advised to read the tea leaves a little more carefully if we want a clearer sense of what JASTA is about.
The White House has not denied that Al Qaeda received funding from the Saudis, or that the Saudi assistance against terrorism has been inadequate. All in all, the White House seems loath to over-commit and is instead playing a cautious game; Obama’s opposition to JASTA may be cosmetic, a way to proffer assurances of continuing official friendship and hopefully minimizing negative impacts of an inevitably vitiated U.S.-Saudi relationship.
To be sure, the marriage itself will continue; both sides have too much at stake for outright rupture. But if adopted, then JASTA will formally end what has been a very long honeymoon.
At day’s end, JASTA abets Obama’s own long-range objectives, ironic as it may seem. It will be interesting to see what happens if the possibility somehow arises that Congress won’t be able to override a presidential veto. Obama might then decide to play it safe and find a graceful way to just sign the bill once it lands on his desk.