Folks, let’s talk about how Joe Biden was just forced to apologize for saying a true thing out loud because it was inconvenient for the Turkish government.
Here’s what he reportedly said:
Speaking at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Biden said allies including Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates had extended unconditional financial and logistical support to Sunni fighters trying to oust the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“President Erdogan told me,” he said, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, “ ‘You were right. We let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border.’
“Our allies poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against al-Assad,” he said, including jihadists planning to join the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda.
And here was the angry response from the Turkish leadership:
“If Mr. Biden has said such a thing at Harvard, he needs to apologize to us,” Mr. Erdogan told reporters here.
Mr. Erdogan, despite widespread evidence to the contrary, denied that Turkey’s long, porous border had enabled thousands of militants to cross onto the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. “Foreign fighters never crossed into Syria from our country,” Mr. Erdogan said. “They would cross into Syria from Turkey on tourist passports, but nobody can claim that they have crossed with arms.”
Oh, ok, that’s super convincing. Just like Russia trying to claim that all its active duty troops fighting in eastern Ukraine are merely on holiday — like a separatist sabbatical — and can’t possibly be stopped or controlled.
Look, I’m probably way more understanding and favorable toward Turkey and the ruling AKP than most people in the US “commentary industry” — who tend to cherry-pick complaints or instinctively bash Turkey’s civilian leaders and non-secular population without mentioning any historical or modern context for certain actions — but I have my limits.
Along with the infamous “Article 301” of the Turkish Penal Code — banning insults to the nation or national symbols — and denial of the Armenian genocide, this is just part of a pattern of Turkish leaders demanding that the entire rest of the world (including elected US officials) bend around their weird alternate reality where only pro-Turkish things can be said unless you want to be an enemy of the state.
For years, Turkey manipulated its status as a key NATO military power and a friend of Israel to block Washington from doing or saying anything critical of Turkey. That’s deteriorated a bit as Turkey has grown apart from Israel and the protective embrace of the Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, but this episode and the speed of Biden’s apology at the insistence of the senior Turkish leadership prove they’re still somewhat untouchable. Vice President Biden maybe said something impolitic, but it wasn’t false, the issue he cited has been a real problem.
And lest you think this is some kind of “Biden problem” or punishment for “Biden being Biden,” let’s just note that President Obama himself is now more than five and a half years into trying to get out of a promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
I have a great respect for Turkey, the Turkish people, and its history — and I have consistently defended Turkey from unfair and offensive (racist or anti-Muslim) critiques — but the loud efforts at blindly shielding the country from criticism and mentions of past or present abuses or other policy failings are a serious problem that undermine and constantly form a negative backdrop to anything positive Turkey tries to do as it approaches its 100th anniversary since independence.
Update, Oct 5, 2014: On Sunday, Vice President Biden called the leadership in the United Arab Emirates to make a similar apology to the UAE for including them, alongside Turkey and Qatar, in the blanket list of supporters of extremists in Syria. While Turkey was a bit fast and loose with border and arms controls, they did not intentionally support terrorist groups specifically, unlike Qatar. In contrast with both, the United Arab Emirates has been especially active militarily in fighting Islamist fighters in Syria and in Libya, and they claim to have a strong position against terrorist financing (although many private citizens seem to ignore that). Saudi Arabia — which I’m not sure was explicitly mentioned — has not publicly commented on Biden’s remarks. Qatar, which is openly financing and arming Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, did not respond.