Why Biden’s Declaration Was More Than a Gaffe

The job of the American president is to make the hard decisions about a fallen world that benefit our nation. Indulging in righteousness, even when the facts are incredibly compelling, is evidence that focus on the job at hand has been lost.

President Biden at the Royal Castle, Warsaw, March 26, 2022. AP/Evan Vucci

When President Biden declared about Vladimir Putin yesterday in Poland, “for God’s sake this man cannot remain in power,” his staff immediately moved to clarify his words, saying he was not calling for regime change in Moscow. Instead, they said the president was making the point that Mr. Putin “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region.”

The president’s actual words were highly problematic. If they had been indicative of a real change in American policy, they could have led to an expansion of an already horrific war, perhaps even turning it into a global conflagration. Aware of this, the White House staff was right to change the meaning of the words of the leader of the free world, even if the specific spin strains credulity. 

Yet this incident is more than a gaffe. Mr. Biden’s inability to communicate a coherent strategy for America while visiting an ally is a nearly perfect echo to something President Obama said abroad almost exactly nine years ago. While visiting Israel for the first time, Obama in March 2013 declared that the dictator of Syria, Bashar Assad, had lost his legitimacy and “must go.” Of course, the strongman remains in power today.

The actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine (and Bashar Assad in Syria) are appalling and beyond contempt. An American president, however, does not have the luxury of righteous indignation unless that sentiment is matched by a policy to eliminate the evil. We have seen the consequences of misaligned rhetoric and American policy. Today Syria is a shell of a country with 600,000 dead, half its populace displaced, and its infrastructure destroyed. There is very little utility in righteous puffery when it comes to global affairs.  

The goal of America and the West should be the exit of Russian forces from Ukraine as quickly as possible. This goal may very well involve a face-saving retreat for Mr. Putin and his army. This is not a new concept. In the year 500 before the common era, Sun Tzu wrote that a smart strategy in battle is to build your opponent a “golden bridge” over which he could retreat. Unfortunately, such an option for Russia is now substantially degraded. 

The temptation to indulge in righteousness did not originate with the Obama-Biden team and is not the exclusive domain of Democrats. The George W. Bush administration’s pursuit of freedom against tyranny was best explained in his second inaugural address: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” This willingness to attempt the transformation of the entire world arguably led to poor decision-making with respect to the invasion of Iraq.  

American voters are impatient with this kind of moral preening. The election of Donald Trump was strong evidence of this. His visible contempt for moral preening was entirely intentional and designed to appeal to voters’ impatience.

Our most original foreign policy thinker, Walter Russell Mead, links the temptations of righteousness to President Wilson’s “crusading moralism” of a century ago. Of course, Woodrow Wilson’s dream of a “global political order that ends the nightmare of warring nation-states” was specifically rejected by the U.S. Senate in the form of the League of Nations.  

The job of the American president is to make the hard decisions about a fallen world that benefit our nation. Indulging in righteousness, even when the facts are incredibly compelling, is evidence that focus on the job at hand has been lost.  

We should support President Biden and help make his administration successful when it comes to foreign policy and national security. It is the patriotic thing to do.


Mr. Munson is a Principal at BGR Group, adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, and host of the weekly foreign policy podcast "Fault Lines." He was Staff Director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.

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