The first veto override of the Obama presidency indicates that Congress is willing to challenge the White House over our alliance with Saudi Arabia. But how much will really change?
By Cameron Hood
(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Amid a bitterly polarized presidential campaign and a seemingly wider-than-ever partisan divide, Republicans and Democrats in Congress came together on Wednesday to deliver the first veto override of President Barack Obama’s two-term presidency. A 97-to-one vote in the Senate and 348–77 vote in the House overturned Obama’s veto of S.2040, better known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.
Coinciding with the recent 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the bipartisan support for the controversial bill underscores the priority both American lawmakers and the wider public place on combating terrorism worldwide and bringing those who sponsor it to justice — and, in this case, the Saudi government for its alleged complicity in the deadliest terror attack in American history.
The veto override adds a new complication to Washington’s already discordant alliance with Riyadh, especially as the two allies have diverged over policy in Yemen and Syria, and to its other concerns in the Middle East. But the collapse of the latest United States-Russian brokered ceasefire in Syria last week, combined with increasing hostility between Washington and Moscow and suspicions around the Kremlin’s intent, have made it paramount for the Obama administration to preserve conducive diplomatic ties with its regional allies however best it can.
Obama’s veto on Friday was no surprise, as the White House has been vocal in its opposition toward the bill. Obama’s stance is that JASTA compromises the American government’s response to state-sponsored terrorism, undermines its relationships with key international partners, and weakens the important legal concept of sovereign immunity. Explaining his difficult decision, Obama wrote:
I have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11), who have suffered grievously. I also have a deep appreciation of these families’ desire to pursue justice and am strongly committed to assisting them in their efforts…. Enacting JASTA into law, however, would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks.
Despite the bill’s overwhelming support in Congress (as well as from both presidential candidates and the relatives of 9/11 victims), Obama is not alone in his objection to JASTA. The European Union delegation to the U.S. has voiced its opposition to the bill, as have the editorial boards of the Washington Post,the Wall Street Journaland the New York Times, several high-level Pentagon officials, Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan and various governments in the Middle East (including, of course, Saudi Arabia).
The bill has drawn a stark divide between its supporters and critics, accented by the language each side has used to describe the other. The 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, for example, released a statement following Obama’s veto last Friday criticizing “the unconvincing and unsupportable reasons that he offers as explanation.” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York), a co-sponsor of the bill, said after the override vote that “the White House and executive branch is far more interested in diplomatic considerations. We’re more interested in families and justice.” In contrast, Brennan, referring to JASTA’s impact on sovereign immunity, stated, “If we fail to uphold this standard for other countries, we place our own nation’s officials in danger.”
This rift is hardened by the fact that the two sides’ arguments center on two distinct aspects of the bill — the political and the punitive. JASTA’s critics maintain that the bill is at best a well-intentioned but ineffective gesture, and at worst a cynical maneuver. They fear it erodes longstanding legal and diplomatic norms and U.S. foreign policy objectives in pursuit of justice, however defined, and by doing so could cause even more harm down the line. By objecting to the bill, its opponents insist they aren’t trying to deny justice to the victims of 9/11 or minimize its legacy. Instead, they’re appealing to law and order, to international alliances and cooperation, to broader ideals and longer-term norms.
JASTA’s backers counter that the bill is narrow enough to be used in specific allegations of the Saudi government’s linkage to the 9/11 attacks and can be tailored further for future litigation. Following the long-anticipated release in mid-July of the previously classified “28 pages” from the 2002 joint Congressional investigation into the attacks, they contend that it will force greater transparency and disclosure from the Saudi government over official ties to the attackers (15 of the 19 were Saudi nationals). For supporters, preventing the families of terror victims from having their day in court is effectively denying them the opportunity for not only recourse, but closure as well.
JASTA’s passage into law is a victory domestically, but a potential hindrance internationally.
It’s important to note that the president’s statement did not explicitly mention Saudi Arabia — and neither does the text of JASTA itself. But the public debate over the bill and the meaning of justice for 9/11 victims has also shone the spotlight on the U.S.’s increasingly controversial and contentious partnership with the country, as well as Obama’s own “complicated” relationship with it.
The same week that Congress set the stage for Obama’s veto, the Senate overcame a bid to block a $1.15 billion sale of military equipment to the Saudi government based on concerns over its track record and intended use, most notably in connection with Saudi Arabia’s violent intervention in the civil war in neighboring Yemen. Yet arms sales, including this most recent one, have been no rarity under the Obama administration. As Pacific Standard’s Jared Kellerdetailed last week, the U.S. government has sold $48 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh since 2010, exceeding sales under the Bush administration three times over. This latest deal, however, underscored the U.S.’s troubling involvement in another proxy war on behalf of a difficult ally.
Though lawsuits over terror attacks on U.S. soil and transactions involving U.S. allies are clearly separate issues, the fact that they both converge in this instance underscores Saudi Arabia’s unusual position in American foreign policy. Within the span of one week, Congress has enabled American citizens to take the Saudi government to court over state-sponsored terrorism allegations, yet also agreed to arm the same government as a sign of goodwill between allies — irrespective of evidence that these weapons may be used in a neighboring conflict and against civilians, or exacerbate Saudi Arabia’s tensions with Iran in the region.
Given the intense emotions surrounding JASTA, no lawmaker in Congress wants to be accused of being soft on terrorism or prioritizing potential diplomatic repercussions with Saudi Arabia over justice for American citizens. Though some experts have said that the bill’s political and legal consequences have been exaggerated, no one can guarantee that it won’t provoke retaliatory lawsuits against Washington in foreign jurisdictions, or further strain relations with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. The prospect of a veto override did prompt some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to have second thoughts on the bill’s unintended consequences, but few ultimately voted to uphold Obama’s veto. Yet already, GOP leaders in Congress conceded that the bill could have “unintended ramifications,” a development White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called “a pretty classic case of rapid onset buyer’s remorse.” In this sense, JASTA’s passage into law is a victory domestically, but a potential hindrance internationally.
Obama’s opposition to JASTA has put him at odds with Congress and the families of 9/11 victims and even drawn accusations that he is trying to deny terror victims “full recourse under the law.” Yet by approving the latest U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia last week, Congress has also demonstrated its willingness to continue its conflicted relationship with Riyadh — and, most concerning, that relationship’s contribution to the churning violence and instability in the Middle East. JASTA has put the Saudi government and its role in encouraging extremism abroad under close bipartisan examination. It’s now up to both parties whether U.S.-Saudi relations more generally merit this same level of scrutiny.