Biden at the Improv: Ukraine and the Perils of Foreign Policy by Open Mic

When will Joe Biden’s verbal incontinence become a deadly threat to Americans?

Until now, we’ve mostly had the luxury of watching the President’s many rhetorical misfortunes with a mixture of mild wonder and gentle concern, the way one might watch an aging relative struggling to remember their children’s names.

But some words carry greater consequences than others — especially when you’re the President of the United States. It is one thing to misidentify your vice president as a first lady, quite another to call for the overthrow of an autocratic and belligerent leader of a nuclear-armed nation. That’s the kind of thing that can start wars that could result in the annihilation of much of humanity.

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It is a sign of the growing concern that the President’s mistakes must be causing in diplomatic circles that the White House Communications Department has stopped correcting the gaffes, which are flying like grapeshot from a cannon. Instead, they take the humpty-dumpty approach. Instead of issuing corrections or clarifications to Mr. Biden’s words, they simply invoke Humpty’s philosophy on behalf of the President: “Whenever I use a word . . . it means exactly what I choose it for – neither more nor less.”

This exercise in behind-the-mirror semantics was demonstrated last week during the president’s trip to Europe, where he attempted to rally allies in support of Ukraine and against Russian aggression.

On Thursday, at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s headquarters in Brussels, Mr Biden was asked what the US would do if Vladimir Putin used chemical weapons in Ukraine. He said the West would respond “in like manner.” One might think that he was trying to convey, using commonsense definitions, the somewhat shocking threat that NATO would launch a similar attack to counter the use of a weapon of mass destruction. But you would be wrong. Later, Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said that while Russia would pay a heavy price if it used such weapons, the US “under no circumstances intends to use chemical weapons.”

In Poland the next day, the President casually remarked to the American troops stationed there that some of them had already been to Ukraine and others would be leaving soon. Soon after, another administration, Humpty, was on the line with reporters and insisted that Mr. Biden’s words were in no way at odds with the fact that the US had no military forces in Ukraine and had no plans to deploy any .

On Saturday we had the most arresting break between the President’s words and improvised official definitions. At the end of an impassioned speech denouncing Vladimir Putin’s aggression and portraying the struggle as a struggle between democracy and tyranny, Mr. Biden threw down the gauntlet: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

This apparent call for regime change in Moscow, we were immediately told, was nothing of the sort. “The President’s point was that Putin should not be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” said an unnamed White House official. “He didn’t talk about Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.”

We can’t go on like this. Credibility is essential to the effective and secure implementation of national security. No amount of hasty tidying up will erase the words that come from a commander-in-chief’s lips. And no, it is not a defense of the President when one correctly notes that his immediate predecessor was as notorious for verbal indiscipline as Mr. Biden.

Right now we have an immediate and escalating problem with this presidency. We can certainly hope that Russians understand as well as we do that at 79 Mr. Biden tends to say things he doesn’t mean. But we can’t be sure. We can be sure that Mr. Putin, who has already whipped his countrymen into a frenzy of paranoia about the “real” US intentions to arm Ukraine – namely, an attempt to weaken and destroy Russia itself – will attack anyone piece of evidence he can find to back his case.

Diplomacy is a subtle activity that combines artful deception with the necessary openness. States only transmit to each other what they want or need to transmit; They willfully mislead each other about some aspects of their goals and abilities while drawing glowing red lines around their non-negotiable truths. Strategic ambiguity helps create a marked sense of uncertainty about intentions in allies and adversaries alike. But clarity is essential when it comes to existential risks. Decoding these complex messages, separating the signal from the noise, is the essence of successful statesmanship.

Mr. Biden’s penchant for ruthless language simply bludgeons through this delicate diplomatic infrastructure. It jeopardizes the ability of the US and its allies to achieve our goals, while greatly increasing the risk of miscalculation on both sides.

John F. Kennedy said that Winston Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” during World War II. Mr. Biden seems keen to do the same — only he may be sending it into battle on the wrong side.

Wonderland: Vladimir Putin is a modern day Adolf Hitler and he is trying to exterminate the Ukrainian people. But while Europe tries to reform itself, the American President is not stepping in. Images: Reuters/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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