Saudis Are Next on Biden’s Mideast Apology List After Harvard Remarks

Saudis Are Next on Biden’s Mideast Apology List After Harvard Remarks

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has one more stop on what has become a Middle East apology tour in the wake of his impolitic answer to a Harvard student’s question: Saudi Arabia.

After apologizing to officials from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates over the weekend, Mr. Biden is trying to connect with Saudi leaders, a senior official said, to clarify that he did not mean to suggest that Saudi Arabia backed Al Qaeda or other extremist groups in Syria.

The vice president’s troubles began Thursday when he declared, in a question-and-answer session at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, that the biggest problem the United States faced in dealing with Syria and the rise of the Islamic State was America’s allies in the region.

Turkey, Mr. Biden said, has admitted allowing foreign fighters to cross into Syria, while Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia funneled weapons and other aid to Syrian rebels that ended up in the hands of Al Nusra, Al Qaeda and other extremist groups.

The White House expressed relief on Monday over Mr. Biden’s apologies, with the press secretary, Josh Earnest, noting that “the vice president is somebody who has enough character to admit when he’s made a mistake.” But asked repeatedly about the substance of his remarks, Mr. Earnest did not say the vice president was wrong.

In fact, neither of Mr. Biden’s claims is inaccurate. The United States has been pressing the Turkish government for months to seal off its border to prevent would-be jihadists from using Turkey as a transit route to join the ranks of the Islamic State. And experts say aid from the Persian Gulf monarchies has wound up with extremist groups in Syria.

President Obama made a similar point in August about Syria’s Arab neighbors fueling extremist organizations in their zeal to oust President Bashar al-Assad, though he did not name the culprits.

“There are factual mistakes, and then there are political mistakes,” said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is a political mistake.”

The timing of Mr. Biden’s remarks was particularly awkward, given the fragility of the Sunni Arab coalition that Mr. Obama is trying to build to confront the Islamic State.

The Obama administration is engaged in tortuous negotiations with Turkey about the scale and nature of its participation in the military campaign against the Islamic State. And while Mr. Obama lined up Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar to take part in airstrikes against the militants in Syria, preserving the coalition over a prolonged campaign that could require Arab ground troops will be challenging.

“The fact that he called the leaders of these, or at least senior officials, in both of these countries to apologize is an indication that he himself wishes he had said it a little bit differently,” Mr. Earnest said.

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