White House tries to back off Biden’s allies critique

Kathleen Hennessey
Chicago Tribune Washington bureau

Washington – — As Vice President Joe Biden headed to Los Angeles on Monday to meet with the mayor and Democratic donors, the White House was still mopping up the diplomatic mess he caused last week.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest tried Monday to distance President Barack Obama from Biden's blunt and damning description of the role three U.S. allies played in the rise of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, Biden said Thursday, have sent weapons and money to the group and other extremist militias as part of a proxy war against President Bashar Assad of Syria.

Without disputing the statement, Earnest focused on more recent developments. Those nations, Earnest said, have partnered with the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS.

“There is no doubt that Turkey and other countries in the region understand the threat that ISIL poses to the region and to these individual countries. And that is why the United States, under the president's leadership, has had success in building broad international support for the actions that we've taken against ISIL,” he said.

Biden's comments, made during a question-and-answer session after a speech at Harvard Business School, caused outrage overseas and posed an ugly diplomatic dilemma for a White House that is trying to hold together a coalition of Arab nations in its campaign against the militant group.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded an apology and told reporters Biden that “will be history for me” if reports of his comments were true. Biden also said Erdogan had privately admitted that he had made a mistake in supporting the group, something Erdogan said “never happened.”

The United Arab Emirates reportedly sought a formal clarification of Biden's comment.

The vice president tried to tamp down the uproar this weekend with apologetic phone calls.

He called Erdogan on Saturday and “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,” according to a statement released by Biden's office.

On Sunday, he called Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, also to clarify, the White House said.

The White House did not comment Monday on whether Biden also had called or planned to call Saudi Arabia.