Americans have little warmth for Saudi Arabia. Despite its strong strategic relationship with the United States — its vital oil supplies acted as a counterbalance against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and now Iran — the desert kingdom shares little in common with American values. It exports Wahhabism, a radical form of orthodox Sunni Islam. Its human rights record is poor, as is its treatment of women. So when it was discovered that 15 of the 19 masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks were Saudis, it seemed clear that the country was not on our side.
That lingering enmity could be one reason why Congress voted overwhelmingly last week to override President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. The president vetoed the legislation out of concern that it will set a precedent that will allow other countries to sue the United States for civilian deaths this country causes elsewhere in military attacks.
Some legislators shared that concern, but it wasn’t enough to sway others from handing Obama the first veto override of his presidency. And in our view, Congress acted correctly.
Giving victims’ families some measure of justice was the chief reason Congress voted to override the president’s veto. As Obama himself put it while voicing disagreement with the vote, “I understand why it happened. All of us still carry the scars and trauma of 9/11.”
Yes, we do. And no one, certainly not elected officials, are going to ignore that fact.
Indeed, legislators seem to have weighed the likely outcome of the override. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told The Washington Post that “he voted for the override because ‘concrete benefit’ for the 9/11 victims’ families outweighed ‘speculative detriment’ to American officials and foreign relations.” And many others agreed.
The vote came at a time when Saudi Arabia is being subjected to increasing scrutiny in Congress. Lawmakers recently approved a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding significant concern arising from the country’s involvement in the Yemen civil war, its record on human rights and its history of exporting extremist Islam.
This is further complicated because Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States and, because of the Iran threat, appears to be growing closer to Israel in an unofficial way. This is making pro-Israel Jews take a new look, and perhaps soften their hearts about Saudi Arabia, after a lifetime of fairly open hostility.
In the end, Congress opted to provide victims and their families with their day in court. And in so doing, the decision was made to risk possible implications for our country’s strategic interests in order to satisfy the important moral imperative of doing the right thing. And that’s as it should be.