On Wednesday, Congress overrode President Obama's veto and approved the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorist Act
While Congress has now given 9/11 victims the right to sue Saudi Arabia on the claim that it provided support to the terrorists, David Andelman writes this legislation may come at a high cost
Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom where the ruling family called the American president by his first name and where the royals’ every demand was met unquestioningly in the interest of mutual profit and security in a most insecure region.
Its safety was guaranteed by the United States, which helped equip it with its own weapons so that the King and his consorts could rest with hardly a care in the world. In turn, this kingdom – Saudi Arabia – supplied America with a reliable and unending supply of cheap oil, and served as an unbending ally in a region where alliances can be very fickle indeed.
Today, that dream came to an abrupt and painful end. With Congress overriding President Obama’s veto and approving overwhelmingly the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorist Act, suddenly Saudi Arabia could be facing a very long and expensive legal battle in the very uncertain venue of America’s courts. Congress has given the right now to victims of 9/11 to sue the kingdom on the theory, denied by the Saudis, that people connected to the Saudi government may have provided support to the terrorists who rained down death on their loved ones.
But there is a broader subtext to this legislation. The kingdom can no longer count on the United States and – a far more dangerous reality – may no longer even want to. With a single vote, Congress may well have brought down on America a host of plagues many on Capitol Hill may only vaguely appreciate.
First, there’s the money. While Congress just approved, with some apparent reluctance, $1.5 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Britain has sold the Saudis more than $7 billion worth of arms plus some 72 advanced Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, which will be worth another $5.8 billion when they’re delivered. France has an ongoing arms sales program to Saudi Arabia worth some $12 billion, including 23 advanced Airbus H145 helicopters. Any shift of large weapons purchases from the United States could cost large numbers of American workers their jobs.
While Saudi Arabia is still the largest purchaser of arms from the United States, not far behind are the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. And the United States has problems with each that today’s vote will do little to improve.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are both overwhelmingly Sunni nations. A slap at one is a slap at both. And the UAE accounts for 20% of all arms exports to the Middle East, just behind Saudi Arabia’s 23%. For years, British, French and German arms manufacturers have lobbied, at times with some success, to join the party in a big way. Now, Congress has given each of our competitors a new marketing pitch.
All this is taking place in an increasingly tense environment and with the United States in a tenuous position. The leadership of Turkey, the third-largest purchaser of American arms in the region, is especially irked at what it sees as the cavalier manner in which Washington has dismissed its request to extradite an opposition cleric who’s taken refuge in the Pennsylvania Poconos and who Ankara wants back to face charges, which he denies, that he orchestrated an aborted coup this summer.
And every Sunni nation is still smarting over the leadership role of the Obama administration in concluding a deal with Iran that returned billions of dollars to this Shiite nation in return for what is seen in most Sunni capitals as a vague pledge to shelve its program of developing a nuclear arsenal.
But there is another more immediate impact that could hit every American’s pocketbook directly. At the very moment Congress began tallying the vote on JASTA, oil ministers of OPEC were said to be on the cusp of cutting a deal to curb oil production in an effort to raise oil prices.
WTI crude on the NYMEX exchange surged 5.4% to $47.10 a barrel, as soon as this report hit the wires, with gasoline and heating oil prices rising in lockstep. In days, prices at the pump could begin to surge as well, and with the winter heating oil season just around the bend. No such OPEC agreement would be possible or enforceable without a Saudi buy-in. And the United States is in a poor bargaining position to urge restraint on the kingdom today.
Above all, though, the United States needs Saudi Arabia most immediately and pressingly to deal with ISIS. The Islamic State is very much a Sunni entity, and it is quite clear that more radical Sunni elements in Saudi Arabia have played a role in its rise and that of al Qaeda before it.
American officials have long relied on Saudi rulers to hold such activities in check, while at the same time providing forces that can help contain ISIS expansion on the ground and in the air. The Saudi air force has joined U.S.-led bombing strikes on ISIS strongholds, and should a major ground offensive materialize, the Saudi’s Sunni troops could be most effective partners.
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Our only hope is that the Saudis are wise enough to avoid the risk of impairing their own financial or strategic health to indulge themselves in political revenge. But Congress has certainly given the kingdom every reason to rebel.
David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.” Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.