A self-described “gaffe machine,” President Joe Biden has long had a reputation for straying off script. Sometimes it’s charming, like when he was caught on a hot mic calling Obamacare “a big fucking deal.” Sometimes it’s much less so (see: “you ain’t Black”). This weekend, however, he may have set a new personal milestone by letting loose a gaffe with potentially serious geopolitical consequences.
It came at the end of an otherwise stirring speech in Warsaw, Poland, the capper to an otherwise successful series of meetings across Europe. During the address, he spoke about the war in Ukraine, the worldwide conflict between freedom and autocracy, and the particular challenges posed to freedom by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then, he added an improvised flourish: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!”
Minutes later, the White House offered a clarification, saying Biden was not talking about regime change within Russia, but rather that “Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region.” This was so unconvincing it would have been better to let the original remark stand.
Then on Monday, Biden waved away the attempt to refine or backpedal his comment. “I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward this man,” he told reporters. “Nobody believes I was talking about taking down Putin. … I was expressing my outrage that he shouldn’t remain in power, just like you know that bad people shouldn’t continue to do bad things.”
Years ago, the great columnist and Slate founder Michael Kinsley defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth—or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head.” By that standard, Biden’s off-the-cuff line was a classic of the genre.
He was certainly sharing some unvarnished truth, not just about his own thoughts, but what many foreign policy specialists believe. The dreadful turn in world affairs this past month—not just the brutal invasion of Ukraine, but also the subsequent economic crises, and the utter collapse of U.S.-Russian relations at a time when so many problems require global solutions—cannot be turned back as long as Putin is in charge at the Kremlin. I’ve said as much, as have other columnists and politicians who share one attribute in common: They are not the leader of the free world.
And therein lies the main point. It’s one thing when a columnist or even a U.S. senator says Putin must go; it’s quite another when the president says it, and with such passion. If Biden’s words are to be taken seriously, it would be reasonable for someone to believe that Russian regime change is U.S. strategy.
The question is whether his words are to be taken seriously. Biden says he was speaking his mind and his heart. That may well be true. The problem is that, because he is president, many people around the word listen more carefully than he sometimes speaks, and can’t be entirely sure whether he is merely emoting or actually letting slip his administration’s real policy.
As a result, certain allied leaders have criticized Biden for his remark—most prominently, French President Emmanuel Macron, who warned the American president it would be unwise to “escalate” the war “either in words or actions.”
It’s a bit rich to scold Biden for escalating the war given his painstaking efforts not to trigger a direct conflict with Russia—even while Putin bombs and shells Ukrainian cities from Kharkiv to Lviv and in between. Still, Macron does have a a point. If Putin ever feels compelled to seek a negotiated settlement to the war, he may restrain that impulse—he may be slower to act on it—if he thinks the war is about his own hold on power and that, if he stops fighting, his foes will move rapidly to chop off his head.
Putin may feel this way regardless of Biden’s remark. According to Michael McFaul, the former ambassador to Moscow, Putin has believed that the U.S. has been plotting to oust him from power ever since he took over the Kremlin. Even so, Putin can now cite Biden’s words in Warsaw as another bullet point in his propaganda campaign to convince Russians—and neutral parties elsewhere—that the war was mounted by American imperialists who seek to defeat Russia.
Putin may ultimately be uninterested in a negotiated solution. His emissaries’ positions at the “peace talks” so far don’t reflect a serious desire for a cease-fire. Still, world leaders—whether it’s the president of the United States, Ukraine, France, Poland, or any other country involved even peripherally in this war—must act as if a negotiated peace is possible. (At one point in his speech, Biden said, “Putin can and must end this war”—which wouldn’t be possible if he were out of power.) They must do this, not just out of decorum but because they expressly don’t want to engage in a “total war.” They don’t want to see Ukraine pushed into abject surrender, for the obvious reasons; and they don’t want to see Russia pushed into abject surrender either, because Putin, faced with that prospect, might try to regain some leverage by firing off a few nuclear weapons. This—Putin’s nuclear option—is the only reason Biden and the other NATO leaders aren’t intervening in this war directly.
This war can go one of two ways: the endless slog of stalemate, or a negotiated settlement. And that being the case, the president of the United States should not publicly call for Putin’s ouster from power—i.e., shouldn’t sway Putin into believing, even one iota more than he might already, that he has no options other than to keep fighting, forever if necessary.
Until that last remark, Biden was having a very good European trip. His meetings with NATO, the G-7, and the European Council, as well as his one-on-one with Polish President Andrzej Duda, shored up the allies’ unity and bolstered America’s leadership role. His informal lunch with the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division in Rzeszow, Poland, near the Ukrainian border, polished his image as commander-in-chief. His speech later that day, to a packed crowd outside Warsaw’s Royal Castle, eloquently spelled out the stakes of the war and the shape of the new post-post–Cold War world in eloquent terms.
Then came that last, improvised line. It probably wasn’t a big mistake. But it was a mistake. And in this war, and this world, of such savage horror and such delicate diplomacy, mistakes of all sorts should be avoided.