Biden retreats: No, I don't want regime change in Russia

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

An especially embarrassing example of the president not meaning what he says:

Whenever Trump said something foolish or wildly exaggerated, his apologists would urge reporters to “take him seriously, not literally.” That’s where we are now with Biden, it appears. When he says “this man cannot remain in power” about Putin, he doesn’t mean it literally.

He means it seriously, as in “Putin is a bad guy.” Or something.

Tony Blinken spent part of his trip to Israel this weekend doing more elaborate clean-up:

There’s been no formal rupture in U.S.-Russia diplomatic relations in the aftermath, probably because Putin understands that Biden’s brain doesn’t work all the time anymore. And maybe because the White House comms team leaped into action immediately after he finished his speech in Warsaw, so eager were they to reassure Moscow that the commander-in-chief’s remark wasn’t official U.S. policy. It was ill-advised for many reasons — as a propaganda tool for Russia, as fuel for Putin’s paranoia, and as a pretext for the Kremlin to escalate in Ukraine. Diplomats here and abroad disliked it for another reason, though, namely that Russia is less likely to negotiate with a west which it believes wants nothing less than an end to Putin’s government. “If everybody burns bridges with Russia, then who is going to talk to them at the end of the day?” said one Turkish advisor afterward. Emmanuel Macron made the same point in lightly criticizing Biden.

American foreign-policy experts are baffled too:

“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…

“There ought to be two priorities right now: ending the war on terms Ukraine can accept, and discouraging any escalation by Putin. And this comment was inconsistent with both of those goals,” said Richard Haass, a veteran diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It discourages Putin from any compromise essentially — if you’ve got everything to lose, it frees him up. Why should he show any restraint?” Haass added. “And it confirms his worst fears, which is that this is what the United States seeks. His ouster and systemic change.”

What I can’t get over is how a politician with as much experience as Biden allowed himself to be overcome by exuberance. He’s always been a gaffe machine, but this wasn’t a traditional Biden gaffe where you’re left wondering what the hell he’s talking about. This was a so-called Kinsley gaffe in which a politician accidentally blurts out the truth. Biden told the truth — the world would be better off if Putin weren’t in power. But the commander-in-chief can’t say that at a moment of high tensions internationally, with a war involving Russia raging in Europe.

In a sober moment he would acknowledge that, which is why he ended up retreating from his comment in the clip up top. But he wasn’t “sober” when he said it in Warsaw. I think he was high on the crowd’s energy and his exalted status as leader of a broad anti-Russian western coalition at a moment when Moscow has never looked weaker. According to WaPo, the sense of intoxication at Russia’s battlefield troubles extends to the Pentagon as well:

“Let me put it this way,” said one senior Pentagon official of America’s standing in the world. “Who would you switch places with? Seriously, who would you switch places with?”…

The senior Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said that the last few weeks have shown that the United States can marshal its “primacy in the global financial system” and its network of allies “in ways that can absolutely pummel aggressors.”…

“I think Ukraine has been able to tie the Russians in knots in large part because of what we’ve been able to do to help them since 2014,” the senior defense official said, adding that the failures of Afghan forces “might” have caused U.S. officials to underestimate Ukrainian troops.

Biden’s defenders have compared his remark to the bravado shown by JFK and Reagan when they spoke in Berlin during the Cold War but their lines were scripted and advanced official U.S. policy. Biden’s ad-libbed comment undermined it. And he didn’t say it during a cold war, he said it during a hot one, when there’s already plenty of bravado being shown on all sides.

But hey. If you’re the sort who thought Trump’s unpredictability was an asset to U.S. diplomacy because it kept the bad guys on their toes, good news: No one knows what the next thing to come out of the current guy’s mouth might be!

Which brings us to our exit question: Is the White House’s goal in Ukraine to see the war end ASAP or is it to see Russia defeated? If the former, deescalation should be Biden’s top priority, not idle brinksmanship about regime change. If the latter, there’s no telling where this is headed.