Why you should care
Because this could really mess with international relations.
Last week, Congress overrode President Obama’s veto and passed into law the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which allows Americans to file lawsuits against state sponsors of terror perpetrated on U.S. soil. While Saudi Arabia isn’t named in the legislation, it’s the presumed target for 9/11-related suits. Already, one Pentagon widow has filed a suit against the Saudi government.
Many fear the law will have a slew of unintended effects on diplomacy and geopolitics, including lawsuits unrelated to 9/11 and even legal actions against overseas U.S. personnel. Saudi officials, meanwhile, have warned that interfering with sovereign immunity could hurt U.S.-Saudi relations, as well as international relations generally. To get a better sense of what this law means, OZY sat down with Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc. and former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C.
Can U.S.–Saudi relations survive JASTA?
Fahad Nazer: I think, over the long term, that the pillars that have maintained and sustained this relationship over the past 80 years will remain strong. You have $70 billion worth of trade — there’s been steady increase in trade here. There’s very close cooperation in terms of countering violent extremists and sharing intelligence to foil potential terrorist attacks both here and in Saudi Arabia. Both countries see ISIS and al-Qaida and its various branches as posing a serious threat to their security, and I think they both value the close cooperation that they have in that area.
A few have hinted that the Saudis might reduce such cooperation after JASTA as a way of expressing their displeasure, and I’d be very surprised. It would seem like a very odd course of action, because this cooperation is mutually beneficial and extremely important to the national security of both countries. Politically, the discussions between the two sides are almost continuous. So I think this is a multidimensional relationship, and because of that I think it will survive. But in the short term, the bill certainly has the potential to strain relations, and I think it’s already done that to a certain extent.
It would lead to uncertainty, and I think it would make diplomats around the world much more nervous over the potential for lawsuits.
Does the bill undermine sovereign immunity?
Nazer: I think that Saudi leaders and frankly the U.S. administration and those in Congress who have expressed concern about this bill have all framed it in almost an identical fashion, saying that its implications extend way beyond U.S.-Saudi relations. They fear it could weaken one of the foundations of the international relations system and the way in which countries conduct diplomacy with each other, which is on the principle of sovereign immunity. This prevents officials of governments from being prosecuted or facing litigation in the courts of other countries.
Obama made the most compelling argument against the bill in that this could have an adverse impact on the way in which the United States conducts its foreign policy — and more so than any other country, simply because the U.S. has more diplomatic missions and a wider military presence than any other country. If other countries were to take similar measures and to prosecute U.S. military or diplomatic personnel over policies overseas, then it could really open the door to putting U.S. security, diplomatic and military personnel at risk. … It would lead to uncertainty, and I think it would make diplomats around the world much more nervous over the potential for lawsuits.
How might it affect money Saudi Arabia has invested in the U.S.?
Nazer: It’s the prospect of a federal judge freezing Saudi assets. I believe they have some $80-$90 billion just in terms of U.S. Treasury bonds, but potentially hundreds of billions more in other assets. So the prospect of a judge freezing these assets, which could also potentially impact joint U.S.-Saudi ventures and companies, is of serious concern.
How are Saudis reacting to JASTA?
Nazer: We’re seeing a lot of anti-JASTA articles in Saudi media. A lot of writers are just expressing dismay, and also over the fact that these 9/11 allegations continue despite the Saudis essentially being exonerated by several investigative bodies. There are some voices — certainly on social media, more than traditional media — that are calling for retaliatory measures, either in Saudi Arabia or across the Arab world. I’m seeing Saudi writers, and there are others writers who are advising Iraqis, for instance, to file lawsuits against the U.S. for the 2003 Iraq War.
Do you believe Congress will amend the law?
Nazer: You’ve already seen a few people talk about that possibility. It gets a little technical, but one of the possibilities I’ve seen is that it would be repealed with just a voice vote so that individual members wouldn’t be on the record. It’s hard to tell where things go from here, but you are seeing — the White House has interestingly referred to it as “buyer’s remorse” — second-guessing in Congress.
Could the law could be used to sue other countries?
Nazer: The way that the legislation is worded limits it to attacks on U.S. soil. So, in theory, this would be limited but I think the real danger, which is what the administration and several members of Congress have expressed, is the potential for retaliatory measures by other countries. I think Iraq is a good example. I don’t know whether these calls in Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries will go anywhere. But countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. was engaged in a long-term military effort, that’s where you’re starting to hear these calls.