Just another day of strategic thinking at the White House. After Volodymyr Zelensky became the first foreign leader to address Congress from a capital under assault, the leadership stakes went up considerably for Joe Biden — and noticeably, too. Shortly after Zelensky spoke and played a video presentation of Russian atrocities, a reporter asked Biden whether Vladimir Putin is a war criminal.
“No,” Biden replied, then circled back:
Immediately afterward, as Allahpundit noted, came the response from Moscow:
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the US president’s statement “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric on the part of the head of a state whose bombs have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world”, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
And then not long after that response came the official Jen Psaki circle-back. When asked by a reporter about the consequence of Biden’s announcement, Psaki backpedaled by claiming it to be Biden’s personal view from his “heart,” not an official designation. Biden’s view, Psaki noted, informed by … television?
— 24 Hours Europe (@24heuropegr) March 16, 2022
A reporter asked:
Back on this question of labeling Putin a war criminal. This war has now been going on three weeks, so far. The president has declined to use this label, as you note. There is an ongoing sort of formal process before you can use this term. So, something must have changed for the president to feel like he could take this additional step today, what?
Psaki cited the “barbaric acts” the world has seen throughout the last few weeks.
The president was answering a direct question that was asked. And responding to what he has seen on television. We have all seen it. Barbaric acts, horrific acts by a foreign dictator in a country that is threatening and taking the lives of civilians, impacting hospitals, women who are pregnant, journalists — others.
So much for those presidential daily briefings, eh? It seems astounding to claim that Biden went off half-cocked on an apparently premature designation of Putin as a war criminal (or so Psaki claimed) based on nothing more than what everyone else sees on TV. The US spends a lot of money on intelligence and military surveillance. If it’s not useful to the president, why bother?
That’s not all Psaki said, however. Another reporter in the same briefing noted that Biden had refrained from making that designation in the previous three weeks. “Has something changed in the assessment,” the reporter asked, “and what brought this new remark from the president today?”
“There is a legal process that continues to — is underway, continues to be underway at the State Department,” Psaki said. “That’s a process that they would have any updates on.”
That prompts a better question: why did Psaki walk this back at all? We have seen the atrocities committed by Russians, including the bombing of a civilian shelter in Mariupol that had been clearly marked for pilots to see. Zelensky played a lowlight reel of indiscriminate attacks on civilian buildings, including apartments, part of the brutal Russian attacks that have escalated as Putin has grown desperate to break Ukrainian resistance. It’s a replay of Putin’s playbook in Chechnya, for that matter.
Moreover, with Biden having established that designation after fumbling it initially, this official walk-back at the White House of it being just Biden’s personal view looks like a retreat in the face of Russian complaints. And that might be precisely what it is, because Biden’s still relying on Russia to accommodate Biden’s desperate ambition to re-enter the Iran deal. Biden has put regional and American security into Putin’s hands in regard to a renegotiated JCPOA while calling him a “war criminal,” and at the same time warning that Putin might use WMDs in Ukraine such as chemical weapons and tactical nukes.
Rather than recognize the insanity of that foreign policy, Biden and his White House have decided that it makes more sense to accommodate Putin and walk back the obvious. That may be many things, but leadership it ain’t.