Joe Biden may joke that his job as vice president is a [female canine], but there’s a certain happy warrior* element to the sitting VP – frequently colored, positively and negatively, by rhetorical gifts to a political press forever on the lookout for “gaffes.”
Recently, that’s included use of the anti-Semitic pejorative “shylocks,” referring to the former prime minister of Singapore as “the wisest man in the Orient,” and making positive reference to former Sen. Bob Packwood (who had to resign following charges of sexual harassment) – at a meeting of the Democratic Women’s Leadership forum, no less.
Add to the list a verbal dust-up with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School Thursday, Biden said that "our biggest problem is our allies" in responding to the civil war in Syria.
"The Turks, who are great friends – I have a great relationship with Erdogan, whom I spend a lot of time with – the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war," Biden said.
"What did they do?" Biden continued. "They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaida and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.... Now they're trying to seal their border."
Mr. Erdogan emphatically denies Biden's assertion that the Turkish President acknowledged his country's mistake in allowing foreign fighters to cross into Syria, and on Saturday he demanded that Biden apologize.
"Foreign fighters have never entered Syria from our country. They may come to our country as tourists and cross into Syria, but no one can say that they cross in with their arms," Erdogan said. "I have never said to him that we had made a mistake, never. If he did say this at Harvard then he has to apologize to us."
Otherwise, Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul, Biden "will be history for me if he has indeed used such expressions." No word yet whether Biden will apologize to Erdogan.
Maybe it was the high-brow Harvard setting (or just the vice presidential podium he uses), but Biden also took a poke at a couple of former Obama administration higher-ups who've written books in which they criticize Obama for not acting sooner in Syria: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
In her memoir "Hard Choices," Clinton says she urged Obama to arm Syrian rebels in 2012.
“The risks of both action and inaction were high,” she wrote. “Both choices would bring unintended consequences. The President’s inclination was to stay the present course and not take the significant further step of arming rebels.”
In his forthcoming memoir "Worthy Fights" (excerpted in Time), Panetta says the US withdrawal from Iraq facilitated the rise of ISIS in Syria.
“To this day, I believe that a small US troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country,” Panetta writes.
At Harvard, Biden took issue with such hindsighting of events by former officials.
"I’m finding that former administration officials, as soon as they leave write books, which I think is inappropriate," Biden told the Harvard scholars.
Defending his boss, Biden said, "At least give the guy a chance to get out of office.”
Time adds an important caveat to this minor debate over the rise of the murderous group calling itself the Islamic State: "Left unsaid by the vice president, is that he often argued for caution against intervention in the debates highlighted by Panetta and Clinton, according to current and former officials’ accounts."
* “Happy warrior” goes back to English poet William Wordsworth, but it’s most often associated with another VP who yearned to be president: Hubert Humphrey.