Some thoughts about the aftermath of the JASTA veto override

The public discussion over JASTA has evolved — at that, rapidly — in recent weeks, as the hypothetical “veto override” became a reality. In venerated opinion pages such as that of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, three substantial arguments against the bill emerged:

First, concerns were raised that the bill, in greenlighting American courts to prosecute any foreign government — including even American allies — would create a dangerous precedent. It would invite, for example, the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings in Japan to sue the United States for the killing of hundreds of thousands. Or perhaps, for example, the victims of the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam would sue the U.S. in a Vietnamese court. American assets, spread as they are in banks and businesses throughout the world, would be vulnerable — as would American soldiers and diplomats — to confiscation or even arrest. A Wall Street Journal editorial added, moreover, that “Given America’s role in international banking, for instance, or its support of Syrian groups whose actions have sometimes varied from what was initially intended, could Washington be held responsible for much of the world’s terrorist financing, if only by oversight?”

The second argument, to the surprise of many, was acknowledgment that the Saudi government, as an institution, has been cleared of responsibility for the September 11 tragedy. For that matter, Saudi Arabia has been a primary target of Al-Qaeda — and in fact, fell prey to Al-Qaeda terrorism years before the phenomenon reached America’s shores.

The third argument is that the political fallout of prosecuting the kingdom would be disastrous for the United States. A different WSJ editorial noted, “The Anti-Saudi posturing is building at the moment the Saudis are showing a greater commitment to domestic reform and the anti-terror effort.” and calling for increased cooperation. A prosecution of the Saudi government would, to the contrary, alienate the kingdom and its population from the United States. It would push it into the arms of America’s rivals, whether Russia or China or other countries, with which the kingdom is cultivating ties anyway. In doing so, it would also discourage Saudis from considering methodologies of socioeconomic reform which the United States has pioneered, as a potential model for their own structural reforms.

A New York Times report from Riyadh observed in substance that this trend has already begun: The JASTA legislation, it noted, “was all the proof many Saudis needed that the alliance that has underpinned the regional order for decades was fraying — perhaps irreparably. … Saudis responded to the passage of the bill, after both houses of Congress voted on Wednesday to override Mr. Obama’s veto, with a mix of anger and disappointment, while many have already begun thinking about how their country will need to adjust.

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