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Washington’s World: October 3rd – October 9th, 2016

As if the news on the internationally scene was not challenging enough for the Administration, a new problem has arisen in Washington in the shape of the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), a bill which the Congress approved by overwhelmingly overriding President Obama’s earlier veto and which allows suits by private citizens against Saudi Arabia in connection with 9/11. Obama has decried the vote and actives steps, both intense lobbying in Riyadh and gestures like the approval of major fighter deals for Saudi allies in the Gulf, are being taken to assure the Saudis that the Administration will be able, by invoking a national interest waiver contained in the legislation, to ensure that no actual suit goes forward. Nonetheless, US officials fear that the damage has already been done and are awaiting retaliation from Riyadh. The one encouragement Administration officials are drawing on is the quiet tone to date from the top Saudi leadership. Along with apparent second thoughts on the part of some members of the Senate, there is some hope of containing the repercussions. State Department contacts tell us, however, that the bilateral relationship is in serious trouble and will require urgent attention from the next Administration. This problem could not have come at a worse time for the White House as it wrestles with what concerned officials describe as the collapse of its Syria policy. With the Russians showing no signs of restraining either their own or the regime’s continuing air attacks against rebel positions around Aleppo, the cessation of hostilities policy based around coordination with Moscow is in disarray, as we noted last week. The problem for US diplomats is that the White House remains extremely reluctant to authorize a Plan B of greater reinforcements on the ground or in the air. The likely way forward therefore is that Secretary of State Kerry will continue his efforts with his Russian counterpart – although we hear privately that he sees little purpose in so doing. In Asia, another long-term and hitherto reliable US ally, the Philippines is causing anxious moments for the Pentagon. If President Duterte follows through with his promise to curtail military cooperation with the US from 2017, this would substantially compromise US power projection capability in the South China Sea, undermine pro-US solidarity in ASEAN and undercut a key component of the “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. Another component of this, the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) already looks irretrievably vulnerable. A setback in Southeast Asia would feed into the Korean Peninsula and further weaken the US hand in confronting North Korea.

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