Did Joe Biden make his latest gaffe on purpose?

Vice President Joe Biden said something many analysts think is true: Some Middle East allies against the Islamic State are making the Syrian civil war worse. The question is: Why did Mr. Biden say it publicly?

Winslow Townson/AP
Vice President Joe Biden answers questions from students at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., last week.

Did Joe Biden make his latest gaffe on purpose?

If he did, it wouldn’t be a gaffe, would it? It would be a tactic. But it could still be a mistake – a big one.

Here’s the back story: Vice President Biden over the weekend had to apologize to some US allies in the fight against the Islamic State after saying in a speech at Harvard that they (the allies) were America’s “biggest problem” in responding to the Syrian civil war.

Specifically, Biden said Turkey had allowed Islamist fighters to cross its border into Syria. Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia had looked the other way while guns and money flowed from their countries to unsavory anti-government Syrian factions.

The accused nations weren’t happy. Biden called officials from Turkey and the UAE to say “sorry.” On Tuesday he was still trying to connect for an apology with Saudi representatives, a senior US official told The New York Times.

“The vice president is somebody who has enough character to admit when he’s made a mistake,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

But the charges Biden made in his Harvard speech were true. At least, US officials privately believe they are true, and think that Middle East allies have in fact made the fight against IS more difficult via their clandestine support of radical rebel groups intent on toppling Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

But that’s an issue that’s got to be handled delicately. Calling out the nations in question could offend them at a time when they might be looking for a reason to lessen their involvement with, or even pull out of, the US anti-IS alliance.

“Yes, Biden was being truthful, but a big part of diplomacy is lying,” tweeted Bloomberg Politics reporter Dave Weigel on Tuesday.

That leaves two possibilities. The first is that Biden let slip something he should not have said, and didn’t really mean to make public. He’s known to have loose lips, having made a number of media-defined gaffes in recent weeks. After all, this a guy who called his own job word that starts with “b” and rhymes with “glitch” during that same Harvard appearance.

The other possibility is that the administration is getting tired of UAE and Saudi money flowing into radical Islamist coffers and Biden decided to give them a public poke.

Remember, this is a guy who was chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Barack Obama picked him for the ticket due in large part to his presumed international expertise. Biden has years of experience in dealing with foreign leaders about sensitive matters at the highest levels. He knows well the power of words in geopolitics. He could have done this on purpose, as a warning. Maybe he cleared it with the administration, maybe he didn’t.

Mr. Weigel is right that lying is part of diplomacy. But sometimes it’s the apology that’s the falsehood.

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