Joe Biden came to the presidency trailing a long history of unfiltered outbursts, offensive gibes, and cringe-inducing comments. When he called himself a “gaffe machine” in 2018, no one suggested he was being too hard on himself. More than once in the course of the Ukrainian crisis, Biden has lived up to that reputation by uttering ill-chosen words — from his suggestion in January that a “minor incursion” by Russia wouldn’t result in a united NATO response to his startling statement last Thursday that any Russian use of chemical weapons “would trigger a response in kind” by the West.
When the president ended a speech in Warsaw on Saturday with a fervent unscripted declaration about Russian ruler Vladimir Putin — “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!” — the political/media class instantly reacted as if Biden had done it again. Commentators pronounced him guilty of another presidential blunder and a serious mistake that “plays into the hands of the Russian propagandists” and could “gaffe us into world war three.” White House officials rushed to walk Biden’s words back, assuring one and all that the US government is not pursuing regime change in Moscow.
But this time, the president’s off-the-cuff words were no gaffe. They were the truth, admirably clear and concise. It was Biden’s staff that blundered by insisting that he didn’t mean what he said. Why wouldn’t he mean it? Putin is a homicidal war criminal who bombs hospitals and apartment buildings and has sent thousands of innocents to early graves. Of course such a monster should not be in power.
Biden’s ad-libbed line came at the end of an emotional speech that linked the fight to repel Russia’s vicious aggression to the heroism of the Cold War generations.
“Today’s fighting in Kyiv and Mariupol and Kharkiv are the latest battle in a long struggle: Hungary, 1956; Poland, 1956, then again 1981; Czechoslovakia, 1968,” said Biden. Once again, he continued, Russia has “strangled democracy” at home and abroad. Once again it is “using brute force and disinformation to satisfy a craving for absolute power.” Once again, America and its allies are in a “battle for freedom.”
Biden will never be blessed with the eloquence of a John F. Kennedy or a Ronald Reagan, but his remarks in Warsaw echoed their calls for the liberation of captive nations and the defeat of oppressors. “A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase a people’s love for liberty,” Biden avowed. “Brutality will never grind down their will to be free. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia.”
Had the president summoned up even a fraction of that spirit about Afghanistan, the Taliban’s victory could have been prevented and Putin likely deterred from invading Ukraine. That calamity, alas, cannot be undone. But at least give Biden credit for not repeating the same mistake.
Give him credit, too, for not repeating the egregious screw-ups of earlier presidents who called for dictators to be removed.
In 2011, Barack Obama insisted that Bashar Assad, the murderous Syrian dictator, could not remain in power, then did nothing to back up his words. That failure was compounded in 2013, when Assad murdered 1,400 civilians with chemical weapons — a violation that Obama had warned would be a “red line” requiring a US response. Again Obama did nothing, with disastrous results for the region and the world.
Twenty years earlier, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, George H.W. Bush described him as “Hitler revisited” and urged Iraqis to overthrow him. Yet when long-suffering Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, hearkening to Bush’s call, launched a nationwide rebellion, the president refused to supply even minimal assistance. The massive US-led coalition that had just liberated Kuwait was nearby, but Bush ordered them to do nothing as Saddam savagely crushed the rebellion that he himself had encouraged.
As Ukraine battles for its survival, America and its NATO allies may not be hitting Russia as hard as many might wish. But there is no question that Biden and the free world are displaying a fierce unity that Putin wasn’t counting on. This has not been a repeat of the Afghanistan debacle or Obama’s empty threats to Assad or the elder Bush’s weakness in Iraq. When Biden declared that Putin “cannot remain in power,” he wasn’t making a statement about regime change. He was giving voice to the resolute conviction that NATO and the West have exemplified in this crisis. The pundits and politicos may have worked themselves into a lather about what Biden was trying to say, but his meaning, for once, was clear, correct, and gaffe-free.