DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A bill passed by Congress allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government has prompted reactions of outrage and ridicule among some in the Arab world. Many critics say the bill reinforces a long-held perception in the Middle East that the U.S. only demands justice for its own victims of terrorism, despite decades of controversial U.S. interventions around the world.
Others support the bill, but point out that the U.S. is meanwhile backing a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen that has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians there.
Two Arabic hashtags were trending on Twitter when the bill was passed, one referring directly to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, and the other simply titled: #TheAmericanTerrorism.
Some Arabic Twitter users shared a photo montage that depicted U.S. military actions in Japan and Vietnam, as well as naked Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison being humiliated by smiling U.S. troops. It read: “Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan can’t wait for JASTA to be implemented so they can, in turn, prosecute the U.S.”
Another shared a 2005 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoon of a young boy on his father’s lap watching an image of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud and asking: “Which terrorist group did that?”
One post shared more than 750 times included a clip with Arabic subtitles of stand-up American comedian Eddie Griffin talking about U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying these wars are about “money, money, money.”
The criticism, of course, is nothing new, says Eurasia Group’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa Ayham Kamel.
“The Middle East, as a region where the U.S. has been dominant, has always been critical of U.S. policy,” he said.
The U.S., for example, has supported unpopular leaders in the region, such as the Shah of Iran until 1979 and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak until 2011. Both were ousted from power after mass protests.
In America, though, “the feeling is the U.S. does more good than bad,” Kamel said. “I think there’s a genuine disconnect and it’s not a new thing … No matter what the U.S. does.”
Yemen-based lawyer Haykal Bafana said he’s lost relatives and friends to al-Qaida attacks in Yemen and fully agrees with the legislation’s intent of allowing lawsuits in U.S. federal courts against foreign countries for actions alleged to have contributed to acts of terrorism in the United States.
But, he also had just one word to describe the bill: “Hypocrisy.”
“That’s the only way to see it,” Bafana said, pointing to White House support of the 18-month-long Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and U.S. drone strikes launched from Saudi Arabia that have killed Yemeni civilians.
Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, said the war in Yemen may have actually contributed to a more anti-Saudi stance among members of the U.S. Congress, who have expressed their concerns about Washington’s involvement.
Even so, outside the U.S. the bill could reinforce a widespread view in the world that the U.S. seeks to dominate and dictate rules to others, said Kinzer.
“They could easily see it as yet another chapter in the more than century-long history of Americans trying to apply their standards and laws to the whole world,” he said.
Existing law allows lawsuits in the U.S. to be brought against countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism, such as Sudan, Syria and Iran. JASTA expands that to allow any foreign country to be brought to trial for alleged involvement in terrorism acts on U.S. soil.
The bill was passed Wednesday by both the Senate and House, overriding President Barack Obama’s veto.
In a letter to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid ahead of the vote, Obama wrote the U.S. relies on the principles of sovereign immunity to prevent foreign courts from second-guessing its counterterrorism operations and other actions taken daily.
Reciprocal lawsuits abroad could subject U.S. service members to litigation. Foreign courts could also decide whether classified U.S. government information is required in trials.
“My opposition to JASTA is based primarily on its potential impact on the United States,” Obama wrote. “The United States has a larger international presence, by far, than any other country — we are active in a lot more places than any other country, including Saudi Arabia.”
The bill doesn’t take into account the foreign policy or national security interests of the United States, said Adam Ereli, a former State Department spokesman and former ambassador to Bahrain.
“Certainly this bill doesn’t win America any friends,” Ereli said.
Bafana, however, said he doesn’t think courts in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf Arab countries will seek a reciprocal lifting of sovereign immunity on U.S. government personnel because they’ve cooperated with Washington in sensitive counterterrorism operations and missions.
“They can’t turn around and say we want to try you for war crimes because it would be like accusing yourself,” he said.
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