Biden’s non-gaffe on Putin suggests a foreign policy-steeped president resisting his instincts

How long can President Biden continue ignoring Chairman Biden's assessment?

President Joe Biden speaks about Russia's war in Ukraine outside the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, on Saturday. (Anna Voitenko/Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks about Russia's war in Ukraine outside the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, on Saturday. (Anna Voitenko/Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Posted March 29, 2022 at 2:09pm

ANALYSIS — It was historic. It was forceful. It was bold. It was presidential.

The longtime senator-turned-U.S. president with a long history of awkward moments and statements insists it was no gaffe. It could have been the signature moment of Joe Biden’s up-and-down presidency — especially for a commander in chief who has called defeating authoritarianism “the defining challenge of our time.”

Instead, his forceful declaration that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” is being widely viewed as just another Biden flub, one that sowed trans-Atlantic confusion. The clarifying statement from a “White House official” on Saturday was anything but. It was, however, another curious decision from a gaffe-phobic — and gaffe-prone — West Wing staff.

Biden’s declaration that Putin must go was a natural one for a diplomat in chief who has talked plenty during his 14 months in office about a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, and was a naturally forceful ending to a purposely forceful speech.

About an hour later, poof, Biden’s boldest moment was overshadowed and muddied by these words: “The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”

Only Biden never used the words “regime” nor “change.” This was Biden, in his own words: “For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

The White House had two options: Put out the statement it did — which sounded naive about regional power dynamics — or stand by the boss and explain he was calling for a Russian Spring, a la the Arab Spring that ousted several hard-line leaders from power last decade.

This White House, yet again, chose confusion. Rather than letting Joe be Joe, his staff turned a powerful moment into a gaffe.

Biden is a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. He was given a robust foreign policy portfolio as vice president from his then-boss, President Barack Obama. He ran in 2020 as an expert in international affairs, the wonky globalist to former President Donald Trump’s “America first” novice.

As he stood outside Warsaw’s Royal Castle, Biden decided to ad-lib and depart from his prepared remarks. He decided to say, as the trendy saying goes, to say the quiet part out loud: No matter how hard one squints, it is difficult to see a post-Ukraine war world order that simply allows Putin back in.

The U.S. president clearly was emotionally moved after meeting earlier in the day with Ukrainian refugees, including small children.

“See all those little children?” the president asked rhetorically to reporters at the stadium. “Each one of those children said, ‘Say a prayer for my dad, for my grandfather, for my brother” because they are “back there fighting.”

“I remember what it is like when you have someone in a war zone,” he added, referring to his late son Beau Biden, who served in Iraq as an officer in the Army National Guard. “Every morning you get up and you wonder. … You pray you don’t get that phone call. …. They are an amazing group of people.”

‘Moral outrage’

His scripted remarks were among the toughest of his term, repeatedly calling out Putin — a man he recently called “a butcher” — for a series of atrocities and acting under the fake pretense of “ethnic solidarity” for Russian-speakers living on Ukrainian soil.

“Putin has the gall to say he’s ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine. It’s a lie. It’s just cynical. He knows that. And it’s also obscene,” Biden said in Warsaw. "President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy was democratically elected. He’s Jewish. His father’s family was wiped out in the Nazi Holocaust. And Putin has the audacity, like all autocrats before him, to believe that might will make right.”

The man who ran to restore the office as the leader of the free world declared “there is simply no justification or provocation for Russia’s choice of war,” adding: “It’s an example of one of the oldest of human impulses: using brute force and disinformation to satisfy a craving for absolute power and control.”

From there, the speech built to a crescendo, and Biden did little to hide his emotion, to hide how fed up he is with Putin. It was in line with his escalating rhetoric about the former KGB man, as well as his warnings that democracy is losing ground to authoritarianism.

Recall that the man speaking before the castle-draped American and Polish flags was the same man who convened a “Summit for Democracy” in December because, according to a State Department fact sheet, “renewing democracy in the United States and around the world is essential to meeting the unprecedented challenges of our time.”

Biden kicked off that virtual event challenging his fellow world leaders to “make concrete commitments of … how to strengthen our own democracies and push back on authoritarianism, fight corruption, promote and protect human rights of people everywhere. To act. To act.” He vowed that under his watch, “the United States is going to lead by example.”

So the self-proclaimed foreign policy expert decided to do just that, to put down a marker, to nudge American and Western policy in a clear direction — away from Putin in the hopes the Russian people and powerful figures there would follow.

Biden’s is a tough job that requires tough decisions. Biden made one, only to later allow his aides to pull him back. As has happened numerous times since he took office, Biden on Monday contradicted the walk-back, further muddying his stance on post-Ukraine war Russia.

“Number one, I’m not walking anything back. The fact of the matter is I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward the way Putin is dealing, and the actions of this man … just the brutality of it. Half the children in Ukraine. I had just come from being with those families,” he said during a news conference after announcing his fiscal 2023 budget request.

“But I want to make it clear: I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change. I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel, and I make no apologies for it,” he said. “And I think that, you know, if he continues on this course that he’s on, he is going to become a pariah worldwide.”

Only that Putin already is.

‘At home’

Biden then, unprompted by reporters, swerved back toward urging a Russian spring: “And who knows what he’d [Putin] become at home, in terms of support.”

The president has twice stated what might have been a true Biden Doctrine, once vaguely, then more clearly. Rather than forcefully making its boldest statement yet in its declared struggle with authoritarianism, Team Biden has managed to construct a kaleidoscope of confusion.

Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who led the Pentagon under President Bill Clinton, is among those veteran foreign policy hands who believe Biden should have stood his ground after his Warsaw moment.

That’s because Putin is signaling about Ukraine that he intends to “level the country” and “conquer” its people, possibly via a long and bloody struggle.

“I think President Biden is exactly right,” Cohen told CNN on Monday night. “That’s Joe Biden speaking from the heart.”

It also is the former Foreign Relations chairman’s assessment. Only he is now the chief policy-maker of the U.S. government, and one not quite following his instincts that Putin must, likely slowly, go.

After all, as former Pentagon strategist Anthony Cordesman notes, “as long as anyone like Russian President Putin heads Russia, it will stay a hostile authoritarian state.”

“Russia will continue to confront the U.S. in Europe and the rest of the world, and it will pose a continuing threat to NATO Europe — particularly the states near its border,” Cordesman wrote recently for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Russia’s growing isolation means that it will continue to try to strengthen its ties to China in ways that will link China to Russia in … competition with the U.S. and its global strategic partners.”

How long can President Biden, constrained to caution by those around him, continue resisting what Chairman Biden, the bold policy wonk, is telling him?