One of the leading criticisms of Donald Trump was that, given his verbal diarrhea and the fact that he wasn’t a professional politician, his loose lips and freewheeling, no-filter style were dangerous when it came to the most powerful office in the world. After all, diplomacy is, like romance, a game of signals and clues — only a misunderstanding won’t just leave you with a sense of embarrassment and regret but potentially bombing and mass murder as well.
During the Trump years, a never-ending stream of articles complained about his “norm-busting” tendency to say things he wasn’t supposed to, from revealing a political ally’s personal phone number to serially revealing government secrets, all the way to lobbing schoolyard taunts and threats at a nuclear-armed dictator he was feuding with. The promise of Joe Biden was that, even if he failed to actually do anything about the conditions that led to Trump’s rise, we would at least have an experienced, mature, and careful adult in charge.
This didn’t really square with what anyone knew about Biden’s history, but this was what was sold. The shift from Trump to Biden would be “day and night, black and white,” one veteran diplomat assured the public. “There will be message control and discipline.”
Yet more than a month into the volatile military conflict involving one of the world’s top nuclear powers, the president has exercised anything but.
By now, everyone is familiar with Biden’s apparently ad-libbed line last week in Poland, when, after a few broadsides at Russian president Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine last month, he declared that “this man cannot remain in power.” It was, as Fred Kaplan at Slate called it, “the gaffe heard around the world,” roundly criticized by even usually friendly press outlets, some Republicans, experts, and European allies, forcing the administration into damage control.
There’s a reason why, even at the height of the Cold War, no US president ever openly insisted on regime change in the Soviet Union. Between the two of them, Russia and the United States have more than enough nuclear warheads to kill everything on the planet, and even an initially “limited” nuclear exchange could lead to wholesale global slaughter. Suggesting the US government is trying to remove the increasingly unpredictable autocrat who rules the country isn’t exactly conducive to avoiding that outcome, nor to the success of the delicate ceasefire negotiations going on between Moscow and Kiev right now.
This alone would be bad enough. But it’s just the worst of a series of alarming verbal slipups Biden’s made since the crisis began late last year. Back in January, Biden triggered similarly widespread dismay when he seemed to openly signal that a “minor incursion” by Putin into Ukraine wouldn’t be punished in the same way as a full-scale invasion, which allies criticized as an invitation to war.
Biden has shown this same kind of carelessness since Putin did in fact launch an invasion, when careful, diplomatic language became more vital than ever. On this most recent European trip alone, Biden said that if Putin used chemical weapons, NATO would respond “in kind” — a phrase that, read literally, means NATO would hit Russia with chemical weapons of its own — and otherwise called Putin “a pure thug,” a “murderous dictator,” and a “butcher.” Earlier, the president declared in an informal exchange with a reporter that Putin was a “war criminal.”
Putin may be all these things and more. But there’s a big difference between a writer, a TV talking head, or even a low-ranking official using these kinds of terms, and the leader of a country locked in an adversarial relationship and now indirectly involved in a war with the person being described. Just think about the decades-long reluctance of US presidents to refer to Turkey’s more-than-century-old butchering of Armenians as the genocide it was, for fear of the response it might provoke from an ally.
Hence these “gaffes,” too, led to scrambling from the White House to clarify and downplay the president’s words (though in the latter case, the White House then seemed to change tack, with the administration soon formally accusing Moscow of war crimes). As former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis put it, “A US president who, during an atrocious war, does not mean what he says on matters of war and peace, and must be corrected by his hyperventilating staff, is a clear and present danger to all.”
The most recent slip was particularly Trump-like. Speaking to the US Army’s Eighty-Second Airborne Division in Poland last week about Ukraine’s resistance, Biden told them they were “going to see when you’re there, you’re going to see — women, young people standing . . . in the front of a damn tank saying ‘I’m not leaving.’”
Once again, White House staffers, who must by now be on the brink of a nervous breakdown, were forced to quickly clarify that the administration was not planning to send US troops to Ukraine. Asked about the misstep this Monday, Biden explained that he had been “talking about helping train the troops in — that are — the Ukrainian troops that are in Poland” — seemingly revealing a heretofore unknown US training program in the NATO country, which would signal a deeper US involvement in this war than previously thought. (A White House official quickly explained Biden was merely talking about “Ukrainian soldiers in Poland interacting on a regular basis with US troops.”)
Incredibly, some have actually tried to defend all this. Administration officials have continually explained Biden’s slipups as being driven by a supposedly emotional response to meeting refugees and seeing firsthand the impacts of Putin’s war. (Biden is presumably mysteriously unaware of the horrors he’s currently directly facilitating in Afghanistan or the brutality of the war on Yemen he’s still supporting.)
Jennifer Rubin, who once suggested Trump could be held legally liable for the outcomes of his verbal playing down of COVID-19, admonished Biden’s advisers for “contradict[ing]” and “undercut[ting]” him. Chess champion Garry Kasparov commented that a “good way to make that [getting Putin out of power] come about is to say exactly that,” and derided the walk-back as “pathetic.” Former Clinton defense secretary William Cohen told CNN that Biden was “exactly right” and was “speaking from the heart.”
It’s not groundbreaking to say, but it’s yet another example of the curious phenomenon whereby standards to which all US presidents ought to be held are applied to Trump but not to other US presidents or officials. More importantly, it’s a reminder of how dangerous this war continues to be and of the knife-edge the world has teetered on since it began.
Biden’s lack of verbal discipline led the White House team to, as much as possible, keep him out of the public eye and spending time in his house in Delaware throughout his first year as president. Until this war is over, maybe they should do a repeat.