Three apologies in three days is a record for any politician and certainly for the office of the vice presidency in the United States. Lucky is America’s Vice President Joe Biden for setting this record after dialing Turkey, the UAE and Saudi Arabia this week to offer his regrets for calling them the “largest problem” in the Syrian conflict and in the rise of ISIS.
Mr. Biden is known for his impolitic expressions, sometimes in the form of racial stereotypes when saying in 2006 that “you cannot go to 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent,” and other times in championing ill-advised political proposals such as dividing Iraq and then opposing the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. This one fits perfectly into the Biden gaffes sequel, deflecting blame for not acting earlier in Syria by pointing fingers to countries that are behind convincing a reluctant administration to take action against ISIS. “Whatever they ask for you say ‘yes’,” a regional diplomat told the Wall Street Journal this month about Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s strategy to support the U.S. in fighting ISIS, making both countries key political and military partners for the coalition.
Biden’s blame game
Biden’s answer was in response to a Harvard student at what was supposed to be a major foreign policy address on Thursday. The question was this: “in retrospect do you believe that the United States should have acted earlier in Syria and if not why is now the right moment?” Yet, in line with the Obama administration policy, Biden did not assign Washington any responsibility for Syria being embroiled in a brutal war that has left more than 200,000 dead and unleashed the ugliest forms of terrorism in ISIS. Instead he chose to offend the same people who are caught in this war in dismissing the “moderate middle” then chiding that “Americans think in every country in transition there’s a Thomas Jefferson hiding behind some rock or a James Madison beyond one sand dune.”
Biden went on to characterize “our allies in the region were the largest problem in Syria,” claiming “they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad” and that in his opinion, this led to the quagmire today.
Both answers by Biden serve one purpose: blaming others to overshadow the Obama administration’s utter failure diplomatically and militarily in Syria. His narrative ignores the root of the conflict over the political power structure in Syria and shrugs off many moderates such as activist Razan Zaitouneh or officials who defected from the Assad regime or others in the opposition who are risking their lives for Syria’s future. Dismissing them as no Thomas Jeffersons or James Madisons is a condescending approach that should have no place in the U.S. narrative towards the Middle East.
Regionally, and while private funding for ISIS is a major problem in Syria, it is not the “largest problem” in Syria. If this funding stops today, ISIS will still flourish, and expand its recruits by exploiting the political vacuum and the grievances of the locals in Iraq and Syria.
Kobani’s imminent fall
Biden’s comments are more misguided coming on the eve of the expected fall of the Syrian city of Kobani in the north into the hands of ISIS. While U.S. officials are now saying the city was not part of the “strategic objective” of the campaign, the fall of Kobani is a statement of the collective failure on Syria. The strongest military in the world backed by regional allies, is not able to save a population of 45,000 from the specter of ISIS.
The fall of Kobani will echo loud in Washington on the failure of the administration and regional allies to equip a moderate force in Syria that could have withstood ISIS and protected the Kurdish and Arab population from the butchers of the Caliphate. While Biden might never recognize it, the testimony of former Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta and Robert Gates in their memoirs point to a crisis of leadership on foreign policy inside the White House.
The current dynamic and the Biden doctrine of prioritizing counterterrorism at the expense of sate infrastructure will leave Syria burning for a long time and will allow militias to dictate the future of the Levant. More than the Turkish President and the political elite in the Gulf, the people of Kobani and the rest of the Syrians and the Iraqis are more deserving of an apology from the United States as their countries become more fragmented and their future crumbles in front of their own eyes.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam