Bob Corker, energy, foreign policy establishment, international law, lobbying, Middle East, Mitch McConnell, Obama, oil, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Paul Ryan, Saudi Arabia, September 11, September 11 bill, sovereign immunity, terrorism
Thanks to foreign policy establishmentarians on the Left and Right, ranging from President Obama to Congress’ Republican leaders, we’ve just gotten a moment when the folks we’ve entrusted to chart our country’s course in world affairs have not only gotten something massively wrong, but literally stopped thinking.
I’m talking about reactions to Congress’ override of the president’s veto of the September 11 bill, which will now enable the families of American victims of terrorism on U.S. soil to seek legal damages from foreign governments found to be responsible. Sure, all or most of the misgivings being expressed by figures like House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker could be resulting from lavish campaign contributions they’ve received from Washington’s big Saudi Arabia lobby. (I have no concrete evidence of this, but the Saudis have always been major Beltway players, and they’re one of the governments sure to be sued under the new law.)
But what’s most revealing about the concerns and outright fears being expressed is their content. For the counter-arguments now being made – and made all along by the Obama administration – reflect jaw-dropping misunderstandings about geopolitics and the role of international law in international relations that have practically defined mainstream foreign policy thinking across the American political spectrum.
Two in particular stand out, and they’re related to the principle objection to the September 11 law: If American citizens can now bring court cases against foreign governments, in violation of the longstanding international legal principle of sovereign immunity, then foreign citizens will feel free to file all sorts of lawsuits against the U.S. government and its representatives at home and abroad.
First, though, does anyone really think that it’s international law that keeps American diplomats and official Washington safe from the reach of foreign legal systems (and the flagrant pseudo-legal systems found in so many countries – including Saudi Arabia)? If they do, they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the American foreign policy decision-making process.
What has really ensured these results is the shield that has always been America’s most reliable asset: American power in all its forms. This should be obvious when it comes to countries considered allies – since the United States is so inherently secure and prosperous that it needs them militarily and geopolitically much less than they need America. Indeed, if any allies are now considering or have ever even contemplated legally harassing American diplomats for any reason, that would count as a disgraceful failure of U.S. policymaking.
And P.S., that goes double for Saudi Arabia. In case the foreign policy establishment hasn’t noticed, even leaving aside the abundant support for Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists influential Saudis have provided for decades, the days when the United States and the rest of the world needed to tremble at the thought that Riyadh might push through a big oil price hike or even shut off the spigots ended long ago. Even better, that’s mainly because of the energy production revolution in the United States.
So although Saudi retaliation for the September 11 bill might unnerve its hired guns in Washington, the United States is fully capable of telling its government, “Enjoy fighting Iran by yourself.”
Second, fears about a new global wave of anti-American lawsuits stupidly assume that most and even all foreign governments will react in the same way. The worrywarts don’t seem to understand that the September 11 bill only permits suits against foreign governments accused of supporting terrorism in the United States. Is this new law really likely to worry the British? Or the Japanese? Or even the Chinese?
The September 11 bill fear-mongers aren’t normally the types to softpedal the differences between America’s friends and foes, or between democracies and dictatorships, or even between ordinary foreign governments of whatever stripe and rogue states. So what’s going on? Simply put, their analytical compasses and even bedrock common sense apparently have been thrown off by the assumption – so crucial to modern international law – that all sovereign governments are created equal and much be so treated legally. Therefore, September 11 bill opponents seem convinced that all sovereign governments can be counted on to act in the same way as well.
Dickens famously characterized the law as “an ass” when, as is the case from time to time, its precepts produce head-scratching decisions. But in countries with legal systems worthy of the name, those bloopers are rightly accepted as one price of seeking and enforcing equitable societies and the common standards of behavior they require.
But the international sphere lacks the ingredients needed for effective legal systems – i.e., consensus about those standards. And no such meeting of an adequate number international minds is remotely foreseeable. Therefore, the ludicrous controversy about the September 11 bill should be reminding us that in the foreign policy sphere, the law is especially asinine – and should have no meaningful influence on American decisions and actions.