US President Joe Biden’s news conference on Wednesday was a microcosm of his presidency. Nothing better demonstrates that than his statement that the United States might tolerate a Russian “minor incursion” into Ukraine.
Official US policy has been clear from the outset of the mounting geopolitical crisis. If Russia invades Ukraine, as its troop build-up near the border suggests it might, the United States and its Nato allies would impose massive economic sanctions.
Reiterating that policy should have been a chip shot for the president. It doesn’t matter that White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a clarifying statement only moments after Biden left the stage that the United States would view any movement of Russian forces into Ukraine as an invasion.
Or that Biden the next day emphasised that Russia would pay a “heavy price.” Ukrainian officials still seemed flabbergasted by the remark, and allies who were already leery of following Biden’s lead are likely nervous about where he might be taking them.
Biden has now sowed uncertainty where there was clarity, all because he was unable to provide a nuanced point. Ukrainians and US allies must wonder what he will say if he ever speaks off the cuff with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Biden’s unforced error, followed by a rambling word salad that left listeners more confused than when he started, provides more than enough grist for the mill for those who say he’s not.
Biden’s gaffe also follows an unnerving pattern. Biden fancies himself a premier negotiator, but he is often extremely conciliatory, allowing others to advance their preferred positions without much push back. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona used this to dramatically scale back Biden’s initial tax-and-spending proposals to the consternation of party progressives.
He’s too willing to give away more than he needs, and can’t even reach a deal when he does.
Once his conciliation fails, however, he often resorts to harshness bordering on demagoguery. Consider his partisan and reckless speech on voting rights, in which he demonised those who do not support his proposed reforms as the rhetorical descendants of repugnant racists such as Jefferson Davis. Listeners don’t quake in their boots in fear when he speaks like this. Such bluster doesn’t get him any closer to his goal.
Russian threats real?
Which brings us back to the threat of Russia invading Ukraine. Russia knows many European allies are leery of the pain that serious sanctions would inflict on their economies. Many are dependent upon the importation of Russian natural gas to heat their homes and workspaces. Crushing sanctions would halt these imports, and thus hurt Russia, but they would also cripple nations that rely on them.
If Biden can’t even get two wayward Democratic senators on board with their party’s priorities, why would Putin think he can get sovereign countries to engage in economic self-harm?
Biden’s gaffe is consistent with what we’ve seen so far. For the United States, that will likely mean a devastating defeat for Democrats in this year’s midterms. For Ukraine and other US allies, it could mean much worse.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre