White House Defends Biden After Gaffes, says it Remains Confident of Middle Eastern Allies’ Commitment

Vice President Joe Biden, May 28, 2014 (Michael Ciaglo/Colorado Springs Gazette/MCT)
Vice President Joe Biden, May 28, 2014 (Michael Ciaglo/Colorado Springs Gazette/MCT)

The White House defended the voluble vice president Monday, after Joe Biden spent the weekend apologizing for remarks he made that offended key allies in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State extremists.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Biden is someone “who has enough character to admit when he’s made a mistake.”

And Earnest dismissed suggestions that Biden’s remarks had damaged the coalition or that the administration had feared it could, absent an apology.

“We feel confident in the depth of the commitment that countries in the region feel to this strategy that the president has laid out,” Earnest said.

He said that President Barack Obama retains trust in Biden, noting the vice president had twice acknowledged his missteps, when he picked up the phone and called to apologize and when he acknowledged publicly that he’d made the calls.

“The fact of the matter is, the vice president is somebody who continues to be a core member of the president’s national security team,” Earnest said. “He is somebody who has decades of experience in dealing with leaders around the globe, and the president is pleased to be able to rely on his advice as we confront the variety of challenges that are so critical to American national security.”

Earnest wouldn’t say if Biden had apologized to the president for the remarks that infuriated the allies, saying he didn’t have any “conversations between the president and vice president” to divulge.

Biden was answering questions at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Thursday when he veered off script to declare, “Our allies in the region were our largest problem” in preventing the spread of al Qaida in Syria.

Biden apologized to the United Arab Emirates Sunday for charging that the oil-rich ally had been supporting al Qaida and other jihadi groups in Syria’s internal war. He also raised ire in Turkey by quoting from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting during the U.N. General Assembly.

“President Erdogan told me, ‘You were right. We let too many people through. So we’re trying to seal the border,’” Biden quoted him as saying.

Erdogan retorted that Turkey had not provided “even the smallest amount of support” to any terrorist organization. As for his reputed confession, he said: “I never admitted any mistake, nor did we tell them that they ‘were right’ during my visit to the U.S.” And he said if Biden didn’t apologize, “then he will be history for me.”

In his apology to Erdogan, as relayed by the White House, the vice president did not retract the quotation he attributed to the Turkish leader. Instead, he “apologized for any implication that Turkey or other Allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIL or other violent extremists in Syria.”

ISIL is one of several acronyms used to identify the group known as the Islamic State.

Biden also took aim at Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. He compared the collaboration with Riyadh to World War II, when the United States and Britain made common cause with the Soviet Union under dictator Joseph Stalin. “We knew Stalin was no-good SOB from the beginning,” Biden said, answering a student’s question about Saudi human rights practices. “But there is a thing called self-interest.”

Earnest would not comment on those remarks and said he had no additional Biden phone calls to announce.

Though other administration officials have noted that countries in the region have played a role in allowing weapons and foreign fighters to make it into Syria, Earnest said Biden’s apologies were an indication “that he, himself, wishes that he had said it a little bit differently.”

Earnest noted that Turkey has endorsed Obama’s effort at preventing foreign fighters from crossing borders,including the border between Turkey and Syria.

“The fact of the matter is, we are pleased with the degree of coordination and cooperation that we’re getting with countries around the globe, including countries in the region, on this effort,” he said.

Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark.

McClatchy DC

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