The White House said Monday that President Obama still has confidence in Vice President Joseph R. Biden despite an escalating series of public gaffes that forced Mr. Biden to apologize to key Arab allies in the fragile U.S. coalition fighting Islamic State terrorists.
The vice president, who has a rich history of inserting his foot in his mouth, apologized to the United Arab Emirates Sunday for accusing the oil-rich ally of supporting al Qaeda and other jihadi groups in Syria’s civil war. He also apologized to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for mischaracterizing a private conversation in which he said Mr. Erdogan admitted that Turkey had failed to stop foreign fighters from crossing the border to join the Islamic State in Syria.
The White House tried to downplay the impact of Mr. Biden’s flubs, with officials saying they aren’t worried about the strength of the international coalition that Mr. Obama has marshaled to attack the Sunni militants by air and eventually on the ground. But the timing of the vice president’s remarks could hardly be worse, coming just as the administration is trying to convince the region of the fledgling coalition’s staying power for the fight. Turkey, in particular, has not decided whether to join the fight despite enormous U.S. pressure.
While the administration was dealing with the fallout from Mr. Biden, the president also found himself under criticism by two of his top former advisers — political guru David Axelrod and former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
Mr. Axelrod said “it was a mistake” for the president to say in a speech last week that the midterm election is a referendum on his agenda.
“I’m not on the ballot this fall,” Mr. Obama said. “But make no mistake, these policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”
Republican Senate candidates seized on the remark in campaign ads in an effort to link Democratic opponents to Mr. Obama in states such as Kentucky and Kansas, where the president is especially unpopular.
Mr. Panetta, in an interview in USA Today, said Mr. Obama has “kind of lost his way” and too often “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”
By not pressing the Iraqi government to leave more U.S. troops in the country in 2011, Mr. Obama “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that [the Islamic State] began to breed,” Mr. Panetta said.
The former CIA director also said the president has a “frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.”
The White House responded coolly to Mr. Panetta’s critique.
“Anybody in any administration who has served in prominent positions like that has to make a decision about how and when and whether to talk about their experience serving the president of the United States,” Mr. Earnest said. “I’ll leave it to others to judge the conclusion that Secretary Panetta has reached about sharing his experience.”
But it was the flaring of international tensions by the gaffe-prone Mr. Biden, a potential candidate for 2016 whose supposed specialty is foreign policy, that caused the administration the most trouble. His remarks exposed fault lines in the U.S.-led coalition over who was to blame for allowing the Islamic State to gain strength while the Syrian civil war raged.
There were persistent questions from the media Monday about why Mr. Biden apologized, given the widespread belief in the administration that some Arab states have contributed to the growth of the Islamic State by funneling money and weapons into Syria in an attempt to overthrow Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
The White House said Mr. Biden telephoned Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, to say that the vice president did not intend to suggest that the UAE supported terrorists. A statement from the UAE’s Foreign Ministry said Mr. Biden had overlooked the UAE’s “role in confronting extremism and terrorism.”
There were also questions Monday about whether Mr. Biden would need to call leaders of Saudi Arabia to apologize for similar comments.
“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,” Mr. Biden said.
“The president himself is the person who is setting the agenda,” Mr. Earnest said. “We feel confident of the depth of the commitment” of U.S. allies in the coalition.
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