“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” King Henry II is said to have muttered out loud, grumbling about Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry wasn’t ordering anyone to whack the troublesome Becket, but four knights who overheard what they assumed to be the King’s wish, rode off to Canterbury and killed the lofty cleric. The story has been written about for centuries, and it came to mind immediately when President Biden, wrapping up an otherwise impactful speech in Poland, said of thug Vladimir Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
A gaffe, as Michael Kingsley famously said, is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Was Biden signalling to other nations or individuals that he wants a regime change in Russia? Since the 19th century, well before Vietnam, Chile, Iran and Iraq, the United States has had a history of meddling in other countries. I don’t think the President was advocating that, at least not at a conscious level. As for the subconscious, who among us (save for certain Fox News prime time anchors) would not wish Putin to be ousted, even vaporized. Surely, there is no place in a civilized world for such a war criminal, butcher, brute.
Perhaps Biden was reflecting how deeply touched by the meetings he had just had with some of the 3.7 million refugees from Ukraine, his having heard so many heartbreaking stories. His pain and frustration at Putin’s pitiless barbarism may have just spilled over. But going off script has consequences.
Putin has repeatedly asserted that NATO is trying to deny Russia’s sovereignty. This, despite NATO’s mission being a defensive one. Biden’s gaffe is fodder for Putin’s propaganda machine, and the seeming challenge to Putin’s legitimacy, even to his manhood, fuels his rage and instability. We can’t afford to fuel that fire.
Politically, the White House having to walk back Biden’s comment worsens the sense that he lacks discipline. His approval rating is at the lowest level of his Presidency, and an event like this doesn’t help.
Finally, the President himself has managed to distract people at home and abroad from his own stirring prose, powerfully scripted and, up to the very end, well delivered – some say, even Churchillian. Focused, strong and unwavering, this was a speech with historical threads tying together an American President’s role as leader of the free world. Let’s not forget that Biden has rebuilt the international alliances and our free world standing grossly undermined by his predecessor. With Ukraine, he has made the right moves, despite Republican and other criticism of his pace in doing so.
When it comes to Ukraine, Biden may have fluffed, but he hasn’t flinched. There are still many open questions. What happens if Putin uses chemical, biological weapons, or tactical nuclear weapons? How should and will Biden and NATO respond “proportionately?” What will stepped up punitive measures look like if Putin intensifies the decimation of Ukraine? Should NATO, despite the risks, at least provide a humanitarian no-fly zone?
Putin knows only one thing: raw aggression. What are the American people prepared to do in this bloody battle of autocracy versus democracy? We take for granted the freedoms we enjoy at home. How far are we willing to go to defend those principles abroad, when we are so divided at home?
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