Analysis 09-23-2016


1 – Congress conflicting messages to Saudi Arabia

2 – Why is the US on the Verge of Allowing 9-11 Victim Families to Sue Saudi Arabi

Congress has passed a controversial bill that would allow 9-11 families to sue the Saudi Arabian government for complicity in the 9-11 attacks.  The vote was unanimous in both houses.

The bill would change the law of foreign sovereign immunity in order to allow the families of victims of the 9-11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia, where 15 of the 19 attackers were citizens, for its supposed culpability.

Bad Law?

Setting aside for a moment whether Saudi Arabia did have any contact with the terrorists – and it has vehemently denied that it does – the bill raises both policy and practical concerns.

Foreign sovereign immunity is a doctrine that ensures that diplomatic disputes are resolved between national governments rather than in the courts. American courts have traditionally been very wary about impinging on the power of the other branches of the government to conduct foreign policy, and the United States gives foreign countries immunity from suit in the United States in order to ensure reciprocal treatment in foreign countries. The U.S. government does not want to find itself a defendant in foreign countries whenever the citizens of that country have a grievance arising out of U.S. foreign policy.

If Congress were to adopt legislation that pares back sovereign immunity for Saudi Arabia or any other countries, it should expect other countries to do likewise. Suddenly, the U.S. might find itself defending against claims by individuals in other countries who accuse the U.S. of engaging in what they define as acts of “terror.” This could include lawsuits in Pakistan or Yemen by families of victims of drone strikes, lawsuits in Syria by families of victims of airstrikes, or even lawsuits in Turkey by someone who claims that the U.S. has “harbored” Fethullah Gulen. The U.S. could also find that its soldiers, diplomats, and other personnel face liability for actions of the U.S. government.

Political Gamesmanship

The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously in May, is on Obama’s desk, where a bit of gamesmanship is expected. The White House has hinted strongly over the past few months that it will veto the measure. Obama has lobbied fiercely against it, arguing it could both strain relations with Saudi Arabia and lead to retaliatory legislation overseas against U.S. citizens.

According to “The Hill,” Obama will veto it, knowing that his veto is very likely to be overridden – especially given his “lame duck” presidency. However, he is hoping that Congress adjourns without overriding the veto.

However, that bluff may not work. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.) said Tuesday, he intends to stay in session in order to override an Obama veto. This is despite the fact that most congressmen are anxious to return home in order to campaign for reelection.

“At whatever point the President vetoes it, we’ll have to take it up and there will be a roll call vote on the override,” McConnell told reporters during a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “Our assumption is that the veto will be overridden.”

Needless to say, lingering suspicion over Saudi Arabia’s role in the 9-11 attacks and pressure from victims’ families made the bill a popular bipartisan offering on Capitol Hill.

The bill’s popularity puts the president in a delicate position. Supporters are hoping Obama will be leery of expending political capital he desperately needs during the lame-duck session.

The president is hoping lawmakers will pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and a criminal justice reform measure and confirm Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

If Obama does choose to veto the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” supporters believe that they have the two-thirds majority needed to override him — a first during his presidency.

“I think we easily get the two-thirds override if the president should veto,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill in the Senate, said when the bill cleared the upper chamber in the spring.

Normally, bills like this would fail a veto override. However, there are many special circumstances – many which are Obama’s fault- that are making this a likely loss for Obama.

Policy Failures Behind Bill’s Passage

Although bills curtailing sovereign immunity have failed in the past, several circumstances have made this bill’s passage all but guaranteed (even though it would have probably failed a couple of years ago).

The first problem is the growing legalistic nature of American society and the growing tendency of both Obama and Clinton to see foreign policy in terms of legalistic solutions.

The 9-11 attacks weren’t civil torts, but acts of war against the US and the victims in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were casualties of war, not specifically targeted victims. Let’s face it, no one sued the Japanese for the attacks on Pearly Harbor – instead the US declared war.

However, many see the issue of 9-11 as something to be solved in a court of law instead of on the battlefield. Clearly, allowing the victim families to sue the Saudis is an extension of that policy.

Another problem is the foreign policy failures of the Obama Administration. The continuing attacks and bombings in the US (as seen this last weekend), only heightens the concern Americans have about terrorism and gives a reason for politicians to pass such legislation.

However, some Israeli apologists contends that the Obama Administration, anxious to get an Iranian nuclear deal, stalled any investigation into other suspected countries of the 9-11 attacks, which might have directed victim families’ anger towards Iran.

Another problem is the growing number of legal attacks against American companies and a desire by Congress to strike back. There has already been legal action against U.S. companies – like the tax action against Apple (although Europeans say it is retaliation for American treatment of Volkswagen and BP Oil – imposing a huge fine on VW for their emissions scam and a massive fine on BP for the Gulf oil spill).

However, there is no doubt that the issue is political in a presidential election year that sees a close race between Trump and Clinton.

Last weekend’s knife attacks in Minnesota and bombings in New Jersey and New York only highlight the American’s concern about terrorist attacks in the US. Americans are tired of the 15 year long “War on Terrorism,” that has cost money and lives – especially since it seems that there are more attacks on Americans than ever before. Therefore, anything that seems to be something of a solution is agreeable to American voters.

However, remember that even if the bill becomes law, nothing material may happen. Federal rules providing for pre-trial discovery require parties to divulge information that might be relevant evidence or lead to the production of such evidence. But that’s no guarantee that it will be produced, especially in the case of foreign parties and a foreign government that can’t be forced to provide evidence.

Although any civil suit against the Saudi government will not do anything to solve the terrorism problem, it does allow congressmen and senators to claim that they are being aggressive in terms of fighting terrorism and its financial backers. And, with just weeks before the election, that is more important than mere facts.

Saudi Arabia Receives US Military Aid

While Congress voted for the 9-11 bill allowing suits against Saudi Arabia, it also was more than willing to sell the kingdom more arms to continue the war in Yemen.    The Senate voted 71-27 to kill a resolution from Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) that would have blocked the $1.15 billion sale of Abrams tanks to Saudi Arabia, which the State Department approved last month.  The sale included 130 Abrams Tanks, 20 armored recovery vehicles and various other military equipment.

Despite the defeat, support for the resolution was bipartisan as there is growing concern about the Saudi involvement in Yemen and its support for groups across the Middle East.

Murphy said that even though the vote was unsuccessful, his goal wasn’t necessarily to pass the resolution, but rather to press Saudi Arabia on its role in the civil war in Yemen. Riyadh has been accused of killing civilians with airstrikes in Yemen and other human rights violations.  Not only is the US supplying Saudi Arabia with white phosphorus, but Saudi Arabia apparently used US-made weapons to destroy a Doctors Without Borders hospital in a recent attack.

“I don’t think the Saudis are interested in continually having a debate about the future of U.S.-Saudi relationship on the floor of the Senate or the House,” Murphy told POLITICO ahead of the vote. “I knew from the beginning that this was not becoming law. My point here is to raise a discussion about the war in Yemen and Saudi behavior in the region that isn’t happening.”

In addition to human rights concerns, Paul and Murphy argued the sale might fuel an ongoing regional arms race.  During the debate, Paul said that US involvement in Iraq and Syria was illegal as there was no congressional authorization for it, and that this debate was an indirect vote on the war in Yemen.

“It’s an indirect vote because they won’t allow a direct vote”, he said, adding that Americans deserved to have a debate on “when and where we should be at war.” The opposition went beyond just a weapons sale and into whether the US should be complicit in a Saudi-led war on Yemen.

Murphy argued that all of the Saudi bombs, provided by the US, are being dropped on civilians and Yemen’s Houthi faction, rather than being used against “our sworn enemy, Al-Qaeda.” This war has given opportunity for Al Qaeda and ISIS to grow in leaps and bounds, he said.

“How can you say you’re serious about strangling ISIS when the textbooks that are produced inside Saudi Arabia are the very same textbooks that are handed out to recruit suicide bombers?” Murphy asked on the Senate floor.

“People say ‘no big deal we are not really at war in Yemen’ – well yes we are, we are refueling Saudi bombers that are dropping bombs in Yemen,” Paul said. “We’ve given Saudi Arabia a hundred billion dollars worth of weapons… So we do need to ask, is Saudi Arabia a good ally?”

However, the US isn’t the only country who is anxious to sell arms to the Saudis.  Weeks ago, the Canadian Globe and Mail published a Secret Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs document dated March 21, 2016 permitting the sale of “Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) and associated weapons systems, spare parts and technical data to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”  The permit was granted even though they noted the war inYemen and the reputed human rights abuses.  The estimated value of the contract is $15 billion.

From 1993 to 2015, Canada has exported to Saudi Arabia 2,900 General Dynamics LAV IIIs, including mortars, assault guns, automatic cannon and anti-tank missiles.  Canadian vehicle sales to Saudi Arabia make it the world’s second-biggest arms dealer to the Middle East, according to a 2016 analysis by defense-industry publisher Jane’s. (The United States is No. 1.)

Not all countries are continuing sales to Saudi Arabia.  Earlier this year,Belgium refused arms licenses to the kingdom.  In Belgium, Minister-President Geert Bourgeois, announced that he has refused an application for an export license to ship weapons to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Bourgeois declined to offer details, but cited the 47 executions carried out Jan. 2. He said he would review future applications on a case-by-case basis – however, he described the chances of an application being approved as “very unlikely.”

Germany and Britain have also expressed discomfort with selling arms to Saudi Arabia during the current situations.  Sweden, in particular, has tightened its arms-exports regulations recently, and canceled a defense agreement with the Saudis in 2015. A spokesperson for the Swedish foreign ministry told The Globe and Mail that it saw very little economic fallout for doing this.

However, as the Senate vote proved, this discomfort with selling arms to a country heavily involved in several conflicts in the Middle East doesn’t extend to the US Senate.




Attack on Indian Army, U.S. Response to Crisis Must Focus on Pakistani Support of Terror
By Lisa Curtis
Heritage Foundation
September 21, 2016

On Sunday, four militants attacked an Indian army post in Uri near the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Pakistani and Indian Kashmir, killing 18 Indian soldiers and provoking a crisis between the two nuclear-armed states. The U.S. must pressure Pakistan to take concrete steps to rein in terrorist groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), that operate freely on its soil. (The Indian government is blaming Pakistan-based militants for Sunday’s attack.) The U.S. should also condition military assistance to Pakistan on its success in cracking down on both groups and call on Indian and Pakistani officials to tone down their rhetoric against each other and refrain from making references to developments in territory under the other’s control. The latter is especially important during the current U.N. General Assembly.

Read more


Iran’s bogus Boeing explanations
By Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
September 21, 2016

After months of delay, the US government has begun issuing licenses to US manufacturers to sell aircraft to Iran. The licensing sets the stage for Boeing to move ahead with a sale of up to 100 aircraft to Iran, a deal worth $25 billion. Many proponents of the Boeing deal argue that the Iranian government is motivated in its desire to buy new aircraft because of the poor safety record of its existing fleet. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), for example, said: For the past three decades, Iran has had one of the worst civilian flight safety records in the world with more than 2,000 deaths caused by plane crashes.  Iran’s civilian flight safety record is the result of US sanctions that prohibited the sale of aircraft to Iran and – for a significant period of time – limited even the provision of spare parts and the servicing of repairs for Iranian commercial passenger aircraft.

Read more


Big questions in Iran’s great Iraq game
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
September 21, 2016

The coming campaign to retake Mosul from ISIS and the increasing instability in Iraq’s government – and the role Iran’s allies and proxies are playing in both situations — are bringing to light the current state of Tehran’s policies towards its western neighbor. Iran’s investment keeps growing, but the challenges keep mounting. Is Baghdad still on a path to be firmly under Tehran’s influence? Or has the Islamic Republic finally begun reaching the strategic limits in its ability to shape Iraq’s direction? The state of Iran’s proxy forces in the country, under the direction of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, is a good place to start. In 2014, Iran may have felt its efforts to create an Iraqi buffer state that could prevent the resurgence of any native Sunni power or the return of an American military presence on its western border had been a relatively great success. The Islamic State proved that wrong, of course.

Read more


Islamists and Autocrats: What the Next Administration Needs to Know about Egypt
By Aaron Rock-Singer
Foreign Policy Research Institute
September 19, 2016

On June 30 2012, Muhammad Mursi, a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was sworn in as Egypt’s President. Only a year later, on the anniversary of the ascent of this Islamist to the highest office in Egypt, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians flooded the streets of Cairo to contest the legitimacy of Mursi’s rule and, shortly thereafter, the Egyptian army intervened to topple him. The following year, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, who had previously served as the head of Egypt’s highest military body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), was elected President. Both the period of Mursi’s rule and that of Sisi saw significant bloodshed: whether attacks on anti-Mursi protestors by Brotherhood-backed armed factions, or the crackdown by state security forces on Islamist supporters in Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya and Nahda squares, political violence has become the norm rather than the exception in post-2011 Egypt.

Read more


Long Game, Hard Choices: The Obama Administration and Democracy in Egypt
By Nicolas Bouchet
German Marshall Fund
September 6, 2016

Three years ago, a military coup ended Egypt’s shaky attempt at transition from decades of dictatorship to democracy. The coup has been followed by a sharp deterioration in human and civil rights in the country. Even before this, though, Egypt was the most important test for US democracy promotion under President Barack Obama as a result of the events since the 2011 revolution. How his administration handled this also illuminates broader points regarding this dimension of US foreign policy. Obama’s initial policy was much in continuity with previous US experience when it comes to democracy promotion and Egypt. Then, as a result of the revolution, there was a genuine but short-lived break from tradition in trying to support the transition. In Obama’s final year in office, however, the United States has returned to the historically mainstream approach of mostly ignoring democracy in Egypt – and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Read more


Iraq’s Regional Decentralisation Debate Is Heating Up
By Michael Knights
Washington Institute
September 18, 2016

The decentralisation of security, spending and administrative power is regularly cited as a means of reducing tension in a post-Islamic State Iraq. The logic is commendable: If Sunnis and Kurds are freer to manage their own affairs, then they will have more stake in cooperation with Baghdad, and there will be less room for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) to operate along the tense dividing lines between central Iraq and the northern and western peripheries. Easy to say, harder to do. In decentralisation, the devil is in the detail. How much input should Baghdad versus local actors have in the recruitment of local security forces? Which spending should ministries versus provincial councils control? How much money will be sent to the local level? And who controls the oil?

Read more


In Pursuit of Good Ideas: The Syria Train-and-Equip Program
By Lt. Col. J. Stewart Welch, USAF, and CDR Kevin Bailey, USN
Washington Institute
September 2016
Research Notes 36

Training indigenous Syrians to fight on their home soil has been considered a central element of overall U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State, but it has proven an extremely daunting task. The first Syria train-and-equip program was hampered by excessive policy restrictions, roundly criticized by many as ill conceived, and deemed a “total failure” by Congress before being suspended in October 2015 by the Defense Department. This research note by two military experts explores the evolution of the initial Syria train-and-equip program and offers recommendations should Washington decide to pursue future iterations, as it is imperative that policymakers and military strategists prevent a repeat of the mismatch between policy constraints and military objectives that doomed the original efforts.

Read more