U.S-Saudi alliance of convenience on verge of inconvenience
WASHINGTON — It has been almost 15 years since 9/11, and there is still much to learn about the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks, along with the source of their funding and support.
Fifteen of the hijackers were Saudi citizens; two were from the United Arab Emirates; one was from Egypt, and one from Lebanon.
The burden of accountability falls to Saudi Arabia, and this week the U.S. Senate passed by voice vote a bill that could allow 9/11 families seeking retribution to sue the Saudi government for any role it may have had in the attacks.
The legislation is unprecedented, and Congress never would have taken such a step 10 years ago, or even just a few years ago, bypassing the White House to challenge Saudi sovereign immunity from prosecution.
The bill must next go to the House of Representatives, and if it passes, the White House threatens a veto should the legislation reach the president’s desk.
It’s hard to imagine members of the House voting down a measure that so easily passed the Senate without a single objection voiced. The White House is working with lawmakers to find language to narrow the bill to make it less offensive to the Saudi leaders in Riyadh, but the hands-off attitude that dictated U.S-Saudi relations for decades has gone by the wayside.
Saudi Arabia was always an ally of convenience. The royal family needed the United States for protection in a rough neighborhood, and America needed Saudi oil. Desert Storm, launched by the first President Bush, not only removed Iraq from Kuwait; it turned back Iraqi tanks from Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein’s real target.
But that was a quarter century ago, and things have changed. No country poses a direct threat to Saudi Arabia, and thanks to alternate energy sources and new-found U.S. oil reserves, the American lifestyle doesn’t rely on the Saudis for what was dubbed black gold so much anymore. And though the Saudis consider Iran a mortal enemy, the two countries don’t share a border, and Iran can’t be said to pose an existential threat.
Iran is not about to attack Saudi Arabia, and oil doesn’t dictate global politics like it once did. When an alliance of convenience is no longer convenient, the alliance frays, and that’s what we’re seeing play out in real time on Capitol Hill.
If this legislation goes forward to allow 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia for their loss, and for their pain and suffering, that’s tantamount to saying the Saudi government was responsible for the attacks.
The 9/11 Commission report in a carefully worded legalistic statement said no evidence was found to directly tie the Saudi government to the attacks, but members of the Commission say that should not be taken as an exoneration of the Saudis.
The ongoing controversy over whether to de-classify 28 pages of a congressional investigation into the attacks is about the possible culpability of some Saudis with ties to the government, and whether their actions were legitimately separate from government policy.
The Saudi government invests a great deal of money in spreading a particular form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, which is the most extreme fundamentalist expression of the Muslim faith. It is blamed for the spread of ISIS and the self-declared Islamic state.
Madrassas in Pakistan funded by the Saudis are the training ground for Al-Qaeda, yet we call these two countries allies. It’s geo-politics, where risks and rewards are balanced, and the knowledge that what comes after an uncertain alliance could be much worse.
All of the commentary about the 28 pages amounts to an airing of some pretty dirty laundry, and that affects public opinion, which is why there’s no love lost for the Saudis and their oil on Capitol Hill, or among the American public.
The problem posed, however, is where the Saudis will turn if their alliance of convenience is no longer mutually convenient.