Dysfunctional U.S.-Saudi relationship on display as bill allowing 9/11 lawsuits passes unanimously

2016-09-09-saudi-arms

Two days before the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the House of Representatives has followed the Senate’s lead in unanimously passing a bill to allow 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia. The bill’s only major remaining hurdle to overcome is a potential veto from President Obama.

Although the notorious “28 pages” of a congressional 9/11 investigation detailing Saudi government connections to some of the 9/11 hijackers that had long remained classified were finally made public in July, the Obama administration apparently remains unmoved on the issue. His reasoning for opposing the bill allowing lawsuits against Saudi Arabia is reportedly based on concerns that the move could open up Americans to prosecution abroad.

Certainly, the risk of U.S. personnel facing foreign prosecution is a real threat as the U.S. continues to defy international norms and take actions that are dangerously out of step with conventional views on warfare, often with explicit approval from Congress. In June, for example, the House voted down a bill that would have banned the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, because the Defense Department was worried it “would stigmatize cluster munitions, which are legitimate weapons with clear military utility.” The use and sale of cluster bombs is already banned by an international treaty signed by over 100 countries, not including the U.S. or Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps due to increased media attention on the Saudi-9/11 connection following the 28 pages’ publication, some in Congress have recently become more vocal in opposing further Saudi arms deals. Four senators announced this week that they will force a vote that could block a $1.15 billion arms sale to the Kingdom that was approved by the White House last month. It’s unclear to what extent members of the Senate will face any public backlash if they fail to stop the looming arms sale after unanimously approving the bill allowing 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia that has now also unanimously passed in the House.

President Obama, however, seems more clearly set on continuing the uninterrupted flow of the weapons pipeline to Riyadh. Despite his assurances of opposing the 9/11 victims’ families bill over fear of legal blowback for federal employees, it was his administration that gave the green light to the pending deal to sell the Saudis over 130 tanks and other arms that is now being contested in the Senate. And as a recent report shows, this latest deal is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Obama administration has, in fact, offered more arms to Saudi Arabia than any other administration in the 71-year history of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, totaling more than $115 billion, according to the report from William Hartung of the Center for International Policy, which has been cited by news outlets including Reuters and the Guardian. “The majority of this equipment is still in the pipeline, and could tie the United States to the Saudi military for years to come,” the report warns.

“The tank deal is just one small portion of the tens of billions worth of U.S. arms that have been offered to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the Obama administration. The salience of the deal derives from its timing, in the midst of Saudi-led intervention in Yemen that has had devastating effects on civilians in that country,” Hartung writes. “The debate over the deal is about more than just tanks.  It is about whether the United States will continue to fuel the Saudi war effort without demanding, at a minimum, that the Saudis demonstrate a serious commitment to preventing civilian casualties.”

It may be true that allowing lawsuits against Saudi Arabia over 9/11 could set a precedent for foreign lawsuits against U.S. government personnel over things like U.S. drone strikes, torture, and rendition programs. No easy solution to the many apparent problems posed by the dysfunctional U.S.-Saudi relationship, or by American foreign policy more broadly, is immediately clear. What is increasingly evident, though, is the seriousness of these problems and the need to resolve them one way or another before they cause even greater diplomatic and humanitarian fallout.

Today’s vote by the House shows that there is widespread, popular demand for a shift in certain aspects of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. In the face of such a clear message from Congress, it remains to be seen whether President Obama will follow through on his threatened veto, with a closely contested election for his successor less than two months away.

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