Biden has done a pretty good job managing the world reaction to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. But speaking in Poland, Biden declared that Putin cannot remain in power. This comes on top of his earlier declaration that Putin is a war criminal.
White House officials were adamant the remark was not a sign of a policy change, but they did concede it was just the latest example of Biden’s penchant for stumbling off message. And like many of his unintended comments, they came at the end of his speech as he ad-libbed and veered from the carefully crafted text on the teleprompter.
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“What it tells me, and worries me, is that the top team is not thinking about plausible war termination,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint.”
“If they were, Biden’s head wouldn’t be in a place where he’s saying, ‘Putin must go.’ The only way to get to war termination is to negotiate with this guy,” O’Hanlon said.
It’s worth remembering why this type of tough-talk rhetoric is harmful:
- It makes it harder for the United States and Europe to lift sanctions as part of a negotiated compromise to the war
- It makes it harder for the U.S. to endorse any negotiated compromise in which Putin stays in power
- It makes it harder for Zelensky to compromise in negotiations with Putin
- It makes it harder to resist escalation in response to Russian provocations
- It makes it harder to resist Zelensky’s demand for planes and other weapons that might lead Russia to escalate
- It makes it harder for Putin to save face (maybe not such a big deal for him internally, and we don’t know how important saving face on the world stage is for him) and to step down (retirement options for war criminals are not great)
Biden needs to resist reckless jingoism, not encourage it.
What is going on here? Is this just more of Biden’s overpromising (COVID, Afghanistan, gas prices)? It’s hard to believe Biden and his team are not thinking about war termination; they are clearly worried about escalation risks.
I became a Biden supporter early in 2020, when the more progressive candidates moved so far to the left competing for base voters that I felt they would lose the general election. One of my concerns about him at the time was with his lack of message discipline. Ugh.