Words matter. When Hillary Clinton was running for president and began comparing Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, a former Kennedy speechwriter told me that he was there during the Cuban Missile Crisis when President John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and his top advisors discussed the advisability of likening Nikita Khrushchev to the Nazi leader.
“We decided we just couldn’t go there,” he said, “because it is absolutely the worst thing one can call a Russian whose country lost millions of men, women and children fighting Nazi Germany.” He added that “Once you liken a Russian leader to Hitler there can be no going back,” and reminded me that even as Ronald Reagan was describing the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire,” he avoided lumping Moscow’s Communist leadership in with the Führer.
Kennedy, Reagan and even Nixon had a keen appreciation for the power of words and the need for precision. In an odd way, so did Donald Trump, who, while crude, was careful to leave the door open for further discussions with foreign leaders civilized men and women might like to banish to the outer darkness. Not so Joe Biden. Like Trump, our current president is thin-skinned and, when coherent, says just about anything that pops into his head.
As Russia began massing troops near the Ukrainian border last year, Biden seemed to dare Putin to invade by predicting that an invasion was inevitable and outlining not what we might do in response, but by letting him know what we wouldn’t do and then assuring the Russian dictator that committed as we might be to protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, we probably wouldn’t see a minor invasion as all that important. To Putin, harboring a burning desire to force Ukraine into his new Russian empire and believing that after Afghanistan, the U.S. was a paper tiger, Biden’s words must have sounded like an invitation to do what he proceeded to do.
During the Vietnam era and dealing with the Soviet Union, then-President Richard Nixon observed that in deterring one’s adversaries, it’s helpful if they can be persuaded you are a little crazy because it makes it impossible to predict what you might do if they go too far. The Kremlin had to believe that Donald Trump fell into that category and couldn’t predict what he might do if provoked but saw Biden not as unpredictable but weak and therefore predictable. Putin might well have invaded Ukraine anyway, but his reading of Biden as a leader had to have made the decision to cross the Ukrainian border easier.
Even after his forces began shelling hospitals, apartment complexes and schools and the U.S. and NATO began to unite in opposition to the war; President Biden continued to assure the Russians that while we wanted to protect Ukraine, stop the killing and restore peace to the region, our number one goal was to avoid an escalation that could lead to a wider war and possibly even to a nuclear confrontation. Putin knew the fear of a wider war that might go nuclear was a card he could play, and he has, raising the readiness level of his strategic missile force and hinting directly and indirectly that those countries providing aid to Ukraine are risking consequences they can hardly imagine.
But in Poland last week, something snapped. After delivering a fairly good speech from a text handed to him by his handlers, President Biden, in off-the-cuff remarks, called for “regime change” in Moscow. He had already labeled Putin a “war criminal” and worse and was now apparently announcing that our goal was no longer to stop the killing or to help defend the sovereign territory of a friendly country but to force the Russian people to oust their leadership or face interminable war and suffering.
The White House began walking the statement back within minutes, but the damage was done. As The Washington Post put it: “It was a remarkable statement that would reverse stated U.S. policy, directly countering claims from senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who have insisted regime change is not on the table. It went further than even U.S. presidents during the Cold War, and immediately reverberated around the world as world leaders, diplomats, and foreign policy experts sought to determine what Biden said, what it meant — and, if he didn’t mean it, why he said it.”
One can forgive the president for thinking it would be great if Putin were to be run over by a bus or tank tomorrow, just as presidents before him probably secretly hoped or even prayed for the deaths or overthrow of the likes of Joe Stalin, Mao Tse-tung or even Kim Jong Un. But none of them articulated those hopes because they knew that we might just have to deal with them to avoid war. And that’s what we are going to have to do to end this war or get Moscow to agree to get out of Ukraine. Ukraine’s leaders know this. That’s why they’re sitting down with Russian leaders to find a way to stop the killing, and it’s why even as they condemn Putin’s actions, they are careful to avoid rhetorically pushing him into a corner, persuaded that he must fight or die.
It’s the fear of making it impossible to deal with Moscow that now threatens to weaken the united opposition to the Russian invasion that developed in the aftermath of the invasion. It’s the reason French and British spokesmen have criticized Biden’s comments, letting the world and our president know that their goal is to keep the war from metastasizing and to help guarantee that Ukraine survives intact rather than to force “regime change” on Russia. And it’s why Mr. Biden’s staff began walking back his words even before he was off the stage.
They can no doubt convince our friends and allies that the president of the United States did not mean what he said as they have in the past. What neither he nor they can do is take the words back. They were a gift of enormous proportions to Vladimir Putin because they provided him with the ammunition he has sought to give credibility to his story of what the war in Ukraine is all about and will bolster rather than weaken his hold on the reins of power in the Kremlin.
Putin has tried to portray Russia as the victim and has argued that his attack on Ukraine was, in effect, a pre-emptive attack to protect the Russian motherland from the aggressive designs of the United States and Europe, who he alleges would like nothing better than to surround Russia and consign her to a position of permanent weakness and subservience. He has repeated this narrative so often at home that polls show that much of the Russian public has bought into it. It’s why he remains popular and why Biden’s words will bolster that popularity even in the midst of the suffering of his own people resulting from his aggression.
His propagandists have already seized on Biden’s words to strengthen their case. They are essentially telling the Russian people that “we told you so.” They now have the words of the president of the United States to back them up, and even as the clips of those words vanish from the airwaves here, they will be repeated and repeated over the airwaves in Russia because Putin understands what Biden does not: Words are important.
The president’s handlers need to lock Joe Biden in his Delaware basement to keep him from making unscripted remarks that make no sense, aid our nation’s enemies and risk expanding the Russian/Ukrainian war into a conflagration no one wants.
His unilateral decision exacerbates the U.S. and allied goals of thwarting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of American Liberty News.