President Obama’s decision to veto a bill that would allow 9/11 families to sue the Saudi government put him a precarious political position: between the victims of the greatest terror attack on American soil and the U.S. service members under his command who could be a greater risk if other nations pass similar laws.
But it puts the woman he wants to succeed him in office, Hillary Clinton, in an even worse position, forcing to stake out a stance that pits her between her former New York constituents, her former employees at the State Department, and her nation’s long-time ally in Middle East. Politically, the smart move for Clinton is to back the bill to the hilt. As a matter of policy, however, such support could backfire rather horribly.
Maybe that’s why her past statements on the bill, called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act or JASTA, haven’t exactly been definitive.
The Clinton campaign did not respond to an email seeking comment on the veto.
The bill would allow victims of terror attacks on U.S. soil to sue the governments of states that support terrorism. Backers of the bill said it would allow the victims to sue the governments that funded al Qaeda, like Saudi Arabia.
The White House argues that such legislation could also alter diplomatic immunity protection around the world, putting both diplomats and troops at risk for lawsuits in the nations they serve. Other states could follow the U.S. lead and pass their own form of JASTA, the White House argues.
Perhaps because of this, even the Pentagon has expressed reservations about the bill, and on Monday, the White House said Obama would veto the bill.
“It’s not hard to imagine other countries using this law as an excuse to haul U.S. diplomats or U.S. service members or even U.S. companies into courts all around the world,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Monday. “I do anticipate the president would veto this legislation when it is presented to him.”
That is, Clinton’s would-be predecessor, and one of her most important backers, said it hurts U.S. national security because of the potential lawsuits. Just as important, but not nearly as talked about, is such a bill could also jeopardize U.S. relations in the oil rich Persian Gulf.
But in Clinton’s home state of New York, which she represented in the U.S. Senate form 2001 to 2009, there is less concern about the long-term implications on American foreign policy. The families of the victims want to chance to make a case in court—and to force the Saudis to testify on what they knew about the attacks.
While Saudi officials have long denied any involvement, and the 9/11 Commission failed to find an official government link, there has been widespread speculation that lower level Saudi officials had information about the attack beforehand.
“Politically, there is no reason to not support it. But in the long term, it is risky. It sets precedent,” Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress explained to the Daily Beast.
Indeed, Clinton has arguably already played politics with the issue, notably before New York’s April 19 primary. Clinton said she would support the bill, even as Obama hinted for months he would not. But her support appeared tepid. In one interview, she said she would support the idea of such a bill—then added that she didn’t know much about the details of the measure.
“Obviously, we’ve got to make anyone who participates in or supports terrorism pay a price, and we also have to be aware of any consequences that might affect Americans, either military or civilian or our nation,” Clinton said in the days before the primary during an appearance ABC’s This Week. “I know there’s been an issue about it for quite some time, I don’t know about the specific legislation that you’re referring to. But obviously, I’ll look into it.”
Minutes after the interview, her campaign issued a statement, reasserting she supported the bill.
If elected president, Clinton may not be able to maintain that position, however.
The Saudis have launched an aggressive campaign against the bill. Saudi officials reportedly informed the Obama administration they would liquidate $750 billion in U.S. assets, like treasury securities, if the bill passed.
And minutes after Earnest made his comments, governments from around the Gulf released their own statements praising the president’s decision.
In an increasingly volatile Middle East, Saudi Arabia is among the U.S.’s most consistent Arab partners in the region. The U.S. military currently is providing weapons and surveillance for the Saudi war in Yemen, to take one example among many.
Should the bill pass, she could find herself commander in chief of troops deployed under her orders around the world and susceptible to similar legislation. Will she still support the bill if it leads to charges against a soldier as well?
“We understand and sympathize with the motivation behind the JASTA legislation. The proposed remedy, however, would enact broad changes in long-standing international law regarding sovereign immunity that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. interests,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast in a statement.
JASTA is not the first major foreign policy division between Obama and Clinton. As Secretary of State, Clinton supported a more robust campaign to arm “moderate” factions opposing Syrian President Bashar al Assad while Obama resisted.
Korb said that the president’s veto buys Clinton time before she would have to address the issue again, if elected president. If Obama does indeed veto, the bill goes through the legislative process again. And in that time, Clinton could refine her stance.
“I would advise her to say that she needs time to review Obama’s reasons for vetoing and Congress’s decision to support it,” he said. As president, “she could say she has a new position after reviewing it further.”
That assumes, of course, that Donald Trump lets his rival for the presidency get away with such fence-sitting. And Trump is not exactly known for his grasp of the subtleties of foreign policy.