A couple weeks ago, Congress overrode a veto put forth by Obama for the first time in his presidency. President Obama sought to block legislation that would allow victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government for its alleged role in aiding the attackers. The override itself is controversial, let alone the legislation, and both deserve some examination.
The bill amends a 1976 law that grants nations immunity from American lawsuits and was the result of a bipartisan effort in the House and Senate to allow the families of those killed in 9/11 to sue the Saudi Arabian government. Legislators hoped it would both bring peace to those seeking justice and remind the kingdom of the United States’ seriousness in the war against terrorism. However, in the world of international politics, the nicest decision may not be the best one.
When the bill continued gaining momentum in April, Saudi Arabia threatened economic fallout. With impending lawsuits that could lead to acquisition of property, the kingdom could sell hundreds of billions of American dollars worth of assets. Though an actual sell never occurred and would likely have thrown Saudi Arabia into economic turmoil, the claim highlights the tension between the U.S. and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has long been one of the United States’ greatest connections to the Middle East, so the Obama administration hoped to avoid creating friction with the kingdom. White House officials also worry that the bill could open the door for foreign countries to strip American agents of their legal immunity as well. Obama released a statement claiming his administration remains loyal to those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks, but that the bill would cause too much damage to international relations.
On the idealist side of things, this bill stands on a pedestal of triumph. Bipartisan action of this magnitude is uncommon, especially so near an election. Senator Chuck Chumer, a Democrat from New York who helped write the legislation, said “This bill is near and dear to my heart as a New Yorker, because it would allow the victims of 9/11 to pursue some small measures of justice, finally giving them a legal avenue to pursue foreign sponsors of the terrorist attack that took from the lives of their loved ones.” A group of 9/11 victims’ families wrote President Obama an open letter imploring him not to “slam the door shut and abandon” them with his veto. Many representatives, Democrat or Republican, stand by the notion that they’re fulfilling their duty to American citizens.
On a more realistic note, the Obama administration probably has a point. After the vote, nearly thirty senators expressed reservations about consequences in a letter stating that the United States could face lawsuits from retaliatory nations “as a result of important military or intelligence activities” Losing an ally like Saudi Arabia, whether or not there is some truth to the possibility of some of their officials’ involvement in the attacks, would be a huge loss in the U.S.’ Middle East policy-making strategy. The House and Senate probably thought they had U.S. citizens’ greatest interests in mind, but they’re looking at the short game. It’s President Obama’s job to work the long game for America’s best interests as a nation, and he acted accordingly when he first proposed the veto. International negotiations are fragile and should not be risked over unsubstantial matters such as these lawsuits, no matter how emotional they may be to some.