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Note to “allies” – don’t underestimate overwhelming popular support for JASTA

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In the days and hours before and after the passage and subsequent veto override of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), opponents, analysts, and commentators scrambled to downplay and rationalize the bill’s astonishing success. With overwhelming support in Congress combined with the first – and likely only – veto override of President Obama’s administration, the relative calm after the bill’s opponents’ resounding legislative defeat seemed eerily naive. But those who believe that an easy watering down of the law is on its way to save the day are fooling themselves. 
 
In contrast to the doom and gloom threats leveled against the U.S. financial system in the lead-up to the vote, which ironically would have hurt the threat-levelers as much as – if not more than – the U.S. itself, the bill’s primary foreign opponents seem to have now eased into a false sense of comfort after the fact. While they are understandably optimistic about the public statements from congressional leadership that seem to imply buyer’s regret on the law and are likely banking on the steroids they’ve injected into their domestic lobbying muscle, the realistic significance of said statements and the effectiveness of said synthetic muscle are grossly overstated. 
 
{mosads}It is true that some Members of Congress may have felt pressure to provide blanket support for the pre-election JASTA vote, but these votes based on fear of constituent backlash were far fewer than some observers estimated. Of the four-six truly toss-up Senate races this cycle, for example, there were another 28-30 senators who voted for the law who were not in a tight race. And beyond those, there were another 63 senators who voted for the law who were not in cycle at all. 
 
This alone brushes aside the “it was just fear of election backlash and they will be more reasonable now” rationalization for the vote. As a result, it is not wise to expect a whole cadre of senators – or representatives for that matter – to suddenly rethink and soften their positions on the issue now that the election is over. Even if a larger portion of House members let potential constituent backlash influence their votes, they are still not likely to reverse post-election given that they’re all already back in cycle again by default. 
 
Then there is the over-reliance on House and Senate leadership statements in the aftermath of the vote and veto. Media reported “Congress” having doubts and second thoughts about the enacted legislation, but this was a mischaracterization on their part. While it is true that some in Congressional leadership expressed buyer’s remorse, they were on record with these opinions even before the vote. Still this was not enough to even budge the entire body of both the House and the Senate, nor will it be after the fact. However, media still misreported “Congress” as changing it’s tune on the bill when in fact it was only a few prominent lawmakers who were already known to be skeptical and were simply signaling their discomfort yet again. 
 
This is to be expected for two reasons. First, on the Senate side, the chamber’s one dissenting vote is not up for reelection and is retiring from politics. The minority leader, therefore, has nothing to lose and some to gain by vocally opposing the bill. Despite media reports, this one dissenting voice, however unrestrained, cannot not accurately be reported as the voice of Congress by any means. 
 
Second, on the House side, it is likely that leadership expressing disapproval and discomfort with the law and using a ‘legislative construction’ frame of reference is a nod to the dozen or so establishment lobbying firms with elongated tentacles that reach far into the leadership teams of both parties of both chambers. Without such nods, these firms would likely be seen as impotent to the foreign interests that are paying them millions of dollars to help change the outcome JASTA, and many of them were likely calling in favors in the form of pubic statements in order to avoid such an appearance. 
 
But unfortunately on this particular issue, impotent they are, as no amount of money or insider Washington connections will be able to overturn the overwhelming will of the American people. Indeed, the highly unexpected but highly populist-inspired election of Donald Trump to the White House should serve as an indicator that no amount of inside-the-beltway inside baseball can achieve results when it comes to certain issues at certain times. And this, too, is one of those issues and times. 
 
Lastly, let’s tackle the seemingly rational argument that this new law will lead to retaliations against Americans abroad, American sovereign immunity, and the evergreen political go-to card – “the troops.” For starters, few if any Americans would agree that sovereign immunity should continue to attach in the case of state support of terrorism or support for terrorists by anyone, including mid- or low-level officials, who may enjoy sovereign immunity. Furthermore, Americans also do not buy that this law could endanger Americans or American diplomats abroad because they do not believe the implied premise that they are supporting terrorism abroad, which would be required for any danger under a reciprocal law. 
 
When it comes to “the troops” – a term which, by the way, the troops themselves along with their families and veterans are tired of seeing abused for convenient political purposes – most Americans realize that most American troops are deployed under status of forces agreements (SOFAs) that explicitly prohibit their unilateral local prosecution. And if a country moves to repeal that part of their respective SOFA, the U.S. would likely withdraw its presence and leave the host country to fend for itself against whatever enemy the U.S. was helping it fend off. 
 
If Saudi Arabia has any hope of convincing American lawmakers to amend JASTA, it’s going to have to do a much better job of convincing Americans that the law is worth amending. The current arguments are as ineffective as the synthetic inside-the-beltway strategy it has thus far employed. But the new era of empowerment of the American electorate is not to be underestimated.
 
Alexander Nicholson is a political consultant, strategist, and published author based in Washington, D.C. He is CEO of the government affairs firm SRB Strategic. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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