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It was the slap heard round the world, the unscripted moment that shattered the choreographed decorum, the eruption of anger that dominated the news.
I’m talking, of course, about Joe Biden demanding that Vladimir Putin be removed from power.
It’s more amusing, of course, to eviscerate Will Smith for slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars for a tasteless joke about Smith’s wife. How is it that Smith pays no penalty, wins his own best actor award, dances at the Vanity Fair party, and the Academy tells reporters not to ask questions about it? A big embarrassment for ABC, and someone should have booted his butt out of there.
But while social media remains obsessed with the only interesting encounter at the ratings-challenged event, I’d venture to say that the president’s overzealous moment has far greater geopolitical consequences.
Even many Biden supporters admit that it was a major screwup–although some are claiming that he managed to send a strong message to the war criminal in Moscow.
In Poland over the weekend, Biden had passionately delivered a well-crafted speech, but then came the nine-word ad-lib: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” And this came after increasingly harsh off-the-cuff remarks, such as calling Putin a “butcher.”
But then, winding up in Warsaw, came the nine-word ad lib: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
The pundits loved it. The most dramatic line of the Biden presidency by far. On par with Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Standing up for Ukraine against the Moscow mass murderer.
But White House aides quickly scrambled to walk it back. Of course Biden wasn’t talking about regime change! Why would anyone think that? Forcing Putin from power? No way.
The spin was weak, and they knew it. The president’s words were unambiguous. The rhetorical shot boomeranged.
Under critical questioning from reporters yesterday, Biden said, “I make no apologies” and said that he was expressing “moral outrage…I’m not walking anything backing…I want to make it clear, I was not then and am not now articulating a policy change.” So he was just venting?
Do most of us agree that Putin is a horrible human being who should be toppled? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean the president of the United States should be saying it out loud. Calling for the removal of the leader of a nuclear-armed power has grave consequences, sounding very much like a declaration of war.
And the problem, even with the walk back, is that he handed the Kremlin some propaganda points. Putin can say the West actually is threatening Russia, not just protecting Ukraine, and that Biden wants him taken out. The Kremlin is calling the comments “alarming.”
Biden has a long history of undisciplined utterances. It’s no coincidence that when Obamacare passed, he pronounced it a BFD on a hot mic. But as president, he has usually chosen his words more carefully–until now.
“Days of carefully choreographed messaging came undone,” Politico said, as those words “upended the trip and threatened to undo the careful balance Biden had tried to strike of condemning Putin without provoking him.”
The New York Times said the ad lib underscored the challenge of “avoiding an escalation with Russia, which the president has said could lead to World War III.”
In the Atlantic, Biden backer Tom Nichols said his gaffe was “endearing” as he spoke “from the heart,” part of the oh-well-that’s-Joe contingent.
But even Nichols acknowledged: “This was not the time for such a moment, and even those who think Biden has exhibited sterling leadership during this crisis should admit that the president’s remarks were an unforced error.”
There is a counter-theory, that this was a good cop/bad cop routine. In other words, Biden intended to threaten Putin, knowing full well that his aides would have to deny that, but that the message would come through loud and clear.
I don’t buy that, because the flurry of what-the-president-really-meant-to-say explanations really undermined the moment and made Biden look confused–especially when Russia is on the defensive over its abysmal military performance.
If Biden is lucky, Russia’s inhumane conduct in Ukraine will cause the world to move on while Will Smith’s slap is still reverberating.