Has Congress checkmated President Obama? This week, President Obama is expected to veto a bill that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged ties to terrorism. The president and some foreign policy experts think the bill will open a can of geopolitical worms; a majority of Congress disagrees, and it looks as if there are enough supporters of the bill in Congress to override an expected veto — which would be a first in Obama's presidency.
To try to get into Obama's head in what seems like a no-win scenario for him, The Fix spoke with Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a critic of the bill. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Fix: So what's Obama's problem with this bill?
ALTERMAN: It's dangerous when states get into other countries' courts.
What the president is imagining is this will create an environment where every court system in the world starts bringing the United States up on charges in foreign courts, and the United States has to defend itself. And when you go down that road, you spend all of your time dealing with judgments from courts that are not often honest. And it becomes a huge obstacle for getting things done.
And Americans could sue anyone, right?
Here's a total hypothetical: The British government was running an agent who, in the process of his undercover work, was thought to be complicit in allowing somebody to carry out an act of violence. You could then sue the British government, because it had a British official who didn't act on this information immediately.
So if many foreign policy experts don't like this bill, why is Congress so keen on it?
I think there's a gut instinct that state sponsors of terrorism should have to pay. But proving state sponsorship is often difficult. And taking what is essentially an issue of international relations and putting it into the court system opens up a huge can of worms.
You can make a case that any government, if it doesn't act, is culpable. And then we have a reciprocity thing, where anyone can sue using any court in 180 countries around the world. Anywhere, at any time, against any country. In this bill, it's viewed as Saudi Arabia, but it can be any country, because you can make a claim, and once you convince one judge, you're off to the races, and you could sue in a whole range of American allies in the Middle East.
What are Obama's options?
It's hard, at this point, to come up with a lot of good options. He has a problem that right before an election, he's a lame duck, and the odds seem good that the veto would be overridden. And Congress is looking beyond this president anyway.
Is it too late for Obama to try to negotiate with Congress on this?
He could bargain away something else that he wants to get a deal on, where the veto is upheld in exchange for something else. It's hard to imagine, in the current climate, Republicans would want to give the president a victory on counterterrorism stuff.
I'm not sure what the executive options are to give Obama the authority to gut the bill [once it becomes law]. But I'm sure somebody's looking into it.
I got an email this morning from one of the bill's supporters, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), featuring the families of 9/11 victims asking Obama to sign the bill. That's difficult to say no to.
The optics are really difficult. But the other piece of it is: There are a lot of non-American victims of terror outside of 9/11. There are more victims of collateral damage from U.S. military action in the last 10 years than there are U.S. victims of terror. We have been using drone warfare for more than a decade. There have certainly been civilian casualties [we could be sued for].