Warning to the West
The walkback of Biden's "gaffe" was worse than it looked
It feels somewhat countercultural to be discussing anything other than last night’s Will Smith-Chris Rock slapdown, but we’ll leave to others the exegesis of the Oscars’ turn toward retributive violence. (Frankly, I’m anxious to get Sonny Bunch’s take on the whole thing.)
This morning though, we need to discuss the prequel to WWIII, and the disturbing vulnerabilities it is exposing. President Biden’s temporary clarion declaration that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” — and it’s awkward walkback — is only a subset of much larger problems.
While the world continues to be inspired by the courageous resistance of the Ukrainians, Politico’s Jonathan Lemire wrote this weekend that Biden returned from the NATO summit “with few, if any, concrete answers as to how the brutal invasion of Ukraine actually would end.”
Despite the ongoing celebration of Western unity, the carnage continues, and Ukraine made no secret of its disappointment. “We expected more bravery. We expected some bold decisions,” Andriy Yermak, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, said Friday.
Zelensky himself delivered a harsh verdict, saying that the Western leaders were “falling short” in their efforts to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression “and urged them to show even a bit of the courage that the outmanned residents of Mariupol have demonstrated.”
In an interview with the Economist, Zelensky said that some Western nations were refusing to send more offensive weapons to Ukraine “because they are afraid of Russia. And that’s it. And those who say it first are the first to be afraid.”
The usual caveats are in order here. The West’s unity is impressive and both the US and NATO have supplied Ukraine with massive amounts of weaponry. Their rhetorical support has been exceptional.
And yet. Too many leaders in the West seem to be missing their moment. And that should serve as a warning.
So here are some cautionary notes inspired — or provoked — by my conversation last week with the Wapo’s Josh Rogin.
The West still does not have an endgame.
As Rogin asked: “Do we want [Putin] to lose or not?”
This is the crucial question. What does the West want? Victory or a stalemate?
If we really want to deter Putin from going into Moldova, or a NATO country, Rogin argues, we have to beat him in Ukraine. Here. Now.
Because what happens if he wins? As the Russians say, “The appetite grows with the eating.”
Right now, Rogin notes, the only real deterrence to Russian aggression is arming the Ukrainians so they can kill more Russians. Give them anti-ship missiles and stronger ground-to-air defenses, including, perhaps, some version of the Iron Dome.
Actually try to win this war.
Why was there a reluctance to do all this earlier?
“People inside the Biden Administration didn’t think Ukraine would win,” Rogin told me.
Enough with the self-celebration.
Remember the Kumbaya moment in Munich, when NATO’s leaders dislocated their collective arms by patting themselves on the back? The bombs started falling three days later.
Unity is great but, as the Ukrainians know too well, it is only a means to an end.
The West has a penchant for getting hung up on words when cities are dying.
We should be far past worrying about whether certain words or phrases might offend Putin. As Will Saletan writes today, Putin is “the world’s bloodiest terrorist,” and the West needs to be able to say that.
We are addicted to wishful thinking.
“Sir,” a reporter asked Biden last week “deterrence didn’t work. What makes you think Vladimir Putin will alter course based on the action you’ve taken today?”
“Let’s get something straight,” Biden replied. “You remember, if you’ve covered me from the very beginning, I did not say that in fact the sanctions would deter him. Sanctions never deter. You keep talking about that. Sanctions never deter.”
Matthew Continetti asks: “They don’t? Then why did Biden threaten Putin with sanctions to begin with?”
Rogin told me last week: “We tell ourselves stories about sanctions because Washington is addicted to sanctions; that’s the muscle memory of this town… So we can all pat ourselves on the back and believe we did what we could.”
Too many leaders continue to focus on risk of action rather than the obvious dangers of inaction.
Many of our NATO allies and elements of the Biden Administration seem focused on avoiding giving Ukraine any weapons that might be “escalatory,” or that would trigger Putin. So we have these endless arguments about the distinctions between MiGs and drones.
“They are playing a word game within themselves inside the government and it’s costing innocent lives,” Rogin told me.
But while they worry about acting too aggressively, it was inaction after Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Crimea, and its war crimes in Syria that has led us to this moment.
The West continues to draw redlines… for itself.
Some countries have expressed frustration at the Biden administration’s declarations of steps it will not take to defend Ukraine, worrying that such public statements simply serve to embolden Putin. Biden and his team, for instance, have repeatedly said they want to avoid anything that would escalate the situation with Russia because they do not want “World War III.”
Some of the West continue rely on vagueness and harshly worded communiques.
During his news conference Thursday, Biden said NATO would respond “in kind” if Russia deploys chemical weapons, but also declined to share any specifics, despite being pressed several times.
Biden said NATO’s response “would depend on the nature of the use.”
“We would respond. We would respond,” Biden said. “If [Putin] uses it, the nature of the response would depend on the nature of the use.”
What in the name of CornPop’sHolyName does that mean? No one, including Putin, really knows. And that’s a problem.
Seizing yachts does not stop tanks or missiles.
Too often, bright shiny objects distract us from what really matters.
The walkback from Biden’s “gaffe” was worse than it looked.
Let’s consider the decision tree that the White House faced after Biden blurted out the nine controversial words: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Option One: Even though it was unplanned and unscripted, let it stand, because you cannot un-ring a bell. Biden’s remark had the added advantage of being (1) true, (2) strong, and (3) something that Putin might worry about.
Option Two: Scramble to assure the world and Putin that Biden didn’t mean “regime change.”
Now consider the debate that I hope broke out in the White House.
Supporters of Option Two focused on the dangers of escalation and upsetting Putin.
Meanwhile, supporters of Option One would have pointed out that rejecting Biden’s declaration would make Biden look undisciplined, confused, and expose the divisions within the US government. The walkback would also totally overshadow one of the most consequential speeches of his presidency.
So the choice was: Rattle Putin or discredit and weaken the President of the United States. And we know what they chose.
Reminder: Elise Stefanik is actually worse than MTG
That Ms. Stefanik, 37, would be hosting this particular party seemed fitting. A once-moderate Republican who worked in President George W. Bush’s White House and was a protégé of former Speaker Paul D. Ryan, she is the embodiment of the rapid shift in the Republican Party. In just a few short years, she has morphed from the conservative mainstream into an unlikely star of the MAGA universe and a die-hard Trump loyalist.
In an interview on the sidelines of the party retreat, her reinvention was on vivid display. Ms. Stefanik repeated Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen and refused to acknowledge Mr. Biden as the legitimately elected president.
So why is she worse than Marjorie Taylor Greene? Because she knows better. Greene is as dumb as a box of hair. Stefanik could have been a leader.
Bill Kristol, a prominent Never Trump conservative, said he once viewed her as a rising star in the party.
“I introduced her to donors and contributed to her campaign in 2014,” Mr. Kristol said, noting that at a meeting in her office in 2018 she privately agreed with him that Mr. Trump was a liability. “She seemed like a responsible elected official. Wrong.”
BONUS: Ted Cruz was pretty much as deplorable as you thought: “Inside Ted Cruz’s last-ditch battle to keep Trump in power.”
1. Is Ginni Thomas’s Story Believable?
Spoiler alert: No. Make sure you read Amanda Carpenter’s piece in today’s Bulwark:
Her story, as well as her election theories, don’t survive even the most basic common-sense tests.
Justice Thomas cannot plausibly plead ignorance of his wife’s Jan. 6th-related activities. Her texts were the subject of a blockbuster Washington Post-CBS story, carried by numerous other outlets such as CNN and the New York Times. Multiple outlets asked the Thomases for comment multiple times. A CNN reporter staked out the couple in their parking garage. Maybe the Thomases talked about it, maybe they didn’t—it’s impossible for outsiders to know what happens inside a marriage—but the notion that Clarence Thomas is unaware of what Ginni was up to? Not plausible.
2. Vladimir Putin: Terrorist
Read Will Saletan’s (typically) brilliant piece in this morning’s Bulwark:
For four gruesome weeks, Vladimir Putin’s military has bombarded schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, and other civilian targets across Ukraine. These attacks, documented in photos, videos, and reports from Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, have killed or wounded thousands of civilians. Last Wednesday, the United States classified the Russian atrocities as war crimes. But they’re also part of Putin’s larger strategy: state terrorism.
3. Democratic Donors Are Getting Bamboozled
Every Democrat fantasizes about seeing Marjorie Taylor Greene go down in flames. But the reality is that she won her district by a landslide in 2020 and is on track to do the same in 2022. Trump won in her newly-drawn district with 68.1 percent of the vote in 2020—a bigger vote share than he got in the very red states such as Idaho (63.9 percent), Mississippi (57.6 percent), or Nebraska (58.5 percent).
There is no Democratic pathway to victory in Greene’s district. Even for a high roller like Flowers. This fact has not stopped Democratic donors from giving Flowers more than $4.6 million in 2021 alone (87 percent via small-dollar donations of less than $200). That’s a haul exceeded by only a handful of other campaigns.
It was also an order of magnitude larger than Democratic challengers raised in seats that are winnable.
4. Why Trump Says He ‘Just Might Have to’ Run Again
Dennis Aftergut writes in today’s Bulwark:
Two motivations appear to lead the pack of emotional wolves that maraud Trump’s brain. First, as his niece Mary Trump has said, he owns “the most colossal and fragile ego on the planet.” His frail self-image fears external confirmation that he’s a loser. Restoration would represent redemption.
Second, and likely more important, is his fear of federal prosecution. The presidency brings immunity from it under Justice Department memos. (As Kimberly Wehle has explained, those memos lack legal grounding.) Although Attorney General Merrick Garland has appeared reluctant to prosecute Trump, he remains exposed to federal prosecution on a variety of charges—including charges related to Jan. 6th—absent a return to the White House.
The walkback really bothered me. By all accounts, Biden gave a brilliant speech, but all I've heard about is the regime change walkback. I've noodled how you can circle the square as a comms team member so that you're not seen as advocating for military removal of Putin while still making a point that the war criminal shouldn't remain in power- I came up with a clarifying line of- "We're hopeful the Russian people will, in a peaceful & democratic way, recognize that Putin is not a leader reflective of their great history and make it known their opposition to his war" That would have ticked all the boxes...
I don't have a problem with Biden's comments. I think it would have been far better to not comment further on them though. No apology is needed here. I equate this with Kennedy and Reagan both calling out the Russians in their own administrations. Both the Berlin airlift and the "tear down this wall" moments have stood the test of time.
Sanctions take time. Finding and confiscating all the wealth of the oligarchs takes time. The program was designed to squeeze Russia to capitulation in the world community. Getting impatient at this point is counterproductive.
I do think that supplying arms is absolutely necessary and I don't object to a no fly zone. Suggesting we aren't in direct conflict with Putin is dumb. Of course we are. I don't see this going nuclear since it's still mutually assured destruction. I do not like this notion of a tactical nuke being considered. There's really no such thing.
Biden is doing fine in my estimate . Ukraine needs more weapons and it well may need NATO directly. It would be reasonable to do that before Ukraine is just converted into a parking lot.