It’s not so much too personal as too reactive. The New York Times’ David Sanger suggests that Joe Biden made a strategic error in venting his spleen rather than considering the circumstances when impulsively labeling Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.” It’s a big departure from John Kennedy’s successful pas de deux with Nikita Khrushchev in the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis, Sanger observes:
When President Biden declared to reporters on Wednesday, almost off the cuff, that President Vladimir V. Putin was a “war criminal,” he was speaking from the heart, his aides said, reacting to the wrenching images of civilians — including children — being dragged, dead or disfigured, from ruins of buildings shelled by Russian forces.
But he was also personalizing the conflict, in a way past presidents have avoided at moments of crisis with the United States’ leading nuclear-armed adversary. And his remark underscored how personal condemnation has become policy, as Mr. Biden and his top aides frame Mr. Putin as a pariah, an indiscriminate killer who should be standing trial at The Hague.
That wasn’t “seemingly” off the cuff, as this video shows. It was entirely off the cuff, and entirely impulsive:
That led to some backpedaling by Jen Psaki, who declared it Biden’s “personal” feelings about Putin rather than an administration position. Sanger quotes Antony Blinken’s follow-up as a shift in policy, but that’s not really what Blinken announced:
Mr. Biden amplified his attacks on Thursday, calling Mr. Putin “a murderous dictator, a pure thug who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.” His secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, chimed in, saying: “Personally, I agree. Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime.”
Blinken’s statement is a master course in double-speak. Listen very carefully to this statement and take note of its curious use of passive voice and the emphasis on “personally”:
Yesterday President Biden said that, in his opinion, war crimes have been committed in Ukraine. Personally, I agree. Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime. After all the destruction of the past three weeks, I find it difficult to conclude that the Russians are doing otherwise.
The consequences of Moscow’s war are being felt around the world – in rising food costs, concerns about fuel supplies, more broadly in worries about how this war will affect the global economy and the fight against COVID-19.
These are serious issues that the global community urgently needs to address. This war is making that much more difficult. In this way, Russia’s actions are having an impact on every person on the planet, wherever they live.
First, Blinken rewrote Biden’s statement from “I think he [Putin] is a war criminal” to the idea that Biden thinks that “war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” emphasis mine. That’s not only not what Biden said, it disconnects Putin or anyone else specifically for responsibility to the commission of war crimes. It’s the same construct politicians use in the cliché “mistakes were made” as an avoidance of accountability. Blinken then uses “personally” to avoid addressing it as an official State Department finding, which would set off all sorts of consequences in American policy. He then goes on to de-emphasize war crimes altogether by making the biggest issue not the fact that war crimes are being committed, but instead the war’s impact on the economy and COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
It’s tough to see that as anything else other than a diplomatic retreat, and likely prompted by the same issues Sanger raises in his analysis. “War criminal” in American diplo-speak usually signals a particular kind of policy:
The White House says that “regime change” in Russia is not on Washington’s strategic agenda. But in past cases when presidents have called national leaders war criminals — Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Bashar al-Assad of Syria — it has frequently been linked to an effort, covert or overt, to drive them from office.
And … so? Would anyone lament Putin’s sudden disappearance or overthrow? Well, Biden certainly would. Biden is partnering with Putin on his project to get a deal with Iran, even to the point of offering concessions that would negate some or all of the economic sanctions we’re dumping on him for invading Ukraine. A replacement regime might not want to partner up with Biden or Iran on such a deal, and the Iranian mullahs might not trust an anti-Putin to act as interlocutor either.
So that’s certainly one issue with regime change for Biden, even before we get to the lesson of the Zen master.
The problem here isn’t that the feud got personal, which is Biden’s wont in any case. It’s that Biden doesn’t have a strategic bone in his body, and usually neither do his aides and advisers. The rapid clean-up on Aisle Joe from Psaki and Blinken shows just how strategically inept Biden has been, and continues to be, even in the most dangerous contexts.
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