In a blunt assessment, President Obama’s first national security adviser told a private audience this week that there is a “chasm” between the United States and its Gulf Arab allies that has yet to heal since the White House very publicly ushered Egypt’s president out of power in February.
Retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who served as national security adviser in 2009-10, told a private meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the United States’ Persian Gulf allies interpret the president’s handling of the Egyptian revolution as a sign that Washington will dump their monarchies or governments if enough demonstrators take to their streets, according to a recording of the speech reviewed by The Daily Beast.
“We have paid a price,” Jones said of the decision to call for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. “Our policy with regard to Mubarak as interpreted by some of our closest Arab allies in the Gulf has not gone over well.”
“In their interpretation of our dumping President Mubarak very hastily, [it] answered the question of what we would be likely to do if that happened in their countries. So there is a chasm there that somehow has to be bridged,” he added.
Jones did not immediately return a call to his office seeking comment Tuesday.
The remarks from the former national security adviser, who left the White House last year, comprise one of the frankest assessments of the U.S. relationship with its oldest and most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been aligned with the United States since the last Roosevelt administration, providing oil to the West in exchange for security guarantees from the U.S. military.
Over the years, the intelligence and security relationship in particular between the United States and Saudi Arabia has grown increasingly interconnected. At the same time, since the 1960s the Saudis also have supported a foreign policy to spread political Islam throughout the Muslim world, exacerbating tensions with Washington since the 9/11 attacks. Many of the al Qaeda attackers were of Saudi descent. Still, the Saudis remain a significant ally in the war on terror.
“In general, yes, there is that concern, certainly among the Gulf countries, that the United States does not stand by its friends in the region,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan. “In the case of the Saudis there is an additional point, which is a concern that the United States is not serious about the peace process.”
Since the fall of Mubarak, the Saudis have begun to bolster Arab governments that have not fallen to the Arab spring. In July, Saudi Arabia announced a $1 billion grant for Jordan. Meanwhile, the Saudis have provided logistical and military support to the government of Bahrain, which has sought to suppress popular unrest. The Saudi kingdom, however, has not supported the regimes in Libya or Syria during the Arab Spring.
According to some Egyptian observers, the Saudis also have sought to bolster political parties in Cairo ahead of the upcoming elections in Egypt.
Shadi Taha, deputy to the liberal Egyptian political leader Ayman Nour, said in an interview that since March he has been urging U.S. diplomats in the region to use American influence with Gulf countries to curb unaccountable funding for political groups that are sympathetic to the return of Mubarak.
“The funding is coming from charities,” Taha said. “It’s not the government, it’s from families. But the Saudi government can stop this easily.”
The Saudi ambassador in Cairo has publicly denied any role in funding political parties in Egypt. Along with other Gulf countries, the Saudis have made grants to Egypt for development in the country after the fall of Mubarak.
Taha said he was frustrated that the U.S. has not responded to him about funding from Gulf Arab countries to Egyptian political groups. “I have heard nothing back from the State Department, from the U.S. Embassy, or from the organizations that work closely with Egyptian parties,” he said. “This leads me to think that there is probably a greater power than me on this. I think there is a strong network of lobbying in Washington from Gulf countries that are frankly more important to this administration than Egyptian democrats.”
A senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic sensitivities, said, “We share the concern expressed by some Egyptians that not all countries are as transparent and nonpartisan as the U.S. in their support for the election process.”
The official added, “Senior U.S. government officials have raised our concerns with senior Egyptian officials and Egypt’s neighbors, and urged that appropriate measures be taken to ensure the Egyptian election process is protected from outside influence.”
A major concern for the United States has been the influence of Iranian money, according to three U.S. officials.
Taha also said he is urging the U.S. government to publish a list of political organizations that have received support from the U.S. government for democracy assistance in order to prove to the public that his party, al-Ghad, does not receive U.S. funding. For years al-Ghad has been accused in Egypt of being a pawn of the United States.
“We have repeatedly asked to clear our name because we haven’t received foreign funding,” he said. “We are hoping we hear from a U.S. official that the United States did not fund political parties, among them al-Ghad party.”
The United States has provided $60 million for democratic transition in Egypt since Mubarak’s fall from power in February. Some of that money goes toward technical election training like platform writing, election law, and other programs aimed at building a democratic civil society.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the United States will be prepared to meet with a number of political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood. A U.S. official told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that a “handful” of members of the Muslim Brotherhood have “availed themselves of programs” funded by the United States for election training.
Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the funding for election training executed by groups like the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute are not ways to influence the outcome of foreign elections.
“If the United States were trying to shift the outcome of the Egyptian elections, it would not do it through the democracy assistance money,” Alterman said. “If you want to influence elections, you do it covertly. There is too much transparency in how [the democracy assistance funding] would be used.”