There is a somewhat famous quote, often falsely attributed to Mark Twain, that warns, “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” It seems most likely that this pearl of wisdom in fact comes from Maurice Switzer’s 1907 literary work, Mrs. Goose, Her Book. In any case, Joe Biden might do well to heed these words. During a March 28 press conference, Mr. Biden found out there’s no recovering from his Ukraine gaffes as he attempted, without success, to explain what he supposedly meant when, on three occasions during his visit to Europe, he made comments that surely confounded, well, everyone.
To the commander-in-chief’s credit, he took a question at the presser from Fox News’ Peter Doocy, who has become something of a thorn in his side; protruding uncomfortably from the bed of roses that is the mostly fawning White House Press Corps. In hindsight, Biden probably wished he had not. Despite being armed with a cheatsheet containing prepared answers to likely questions, the president still managed to sound as if he were scrambling for an adequate response.
Three Terrible Tumbles
Doocy led in with a reasonable but pointed opening question: “Are you worried that other leaders in the world are going to start to doubt that America is back if some of these big things that you say on the world stage keep getting walked back?” The reporter was referring to several comments Mr. Biden made, regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, during his recent trip to Europe. Seemingly mystified, Biden responded by asking Doocy, “What’s getting walked back?” And that was the reporter’s cue to reel off three pretty major gaffes:
“It sounded like you told US troops they were going to Ukraine. It sounded like you said it was possible the US would use a chemical weapon, and it sounded like you were calling for regime change in Russia …”
At that point, Biden cut Doocy off, saying, “None of the three occurred.” However, the record tells a different story.
With regard to US troops going to Ukraine, Biden told Doocy, “I was talking to the troops. We were talking about helping train the Ukrainian troops that are in Poland … “ But that certainly did not appear to be an accurate recounting of what Biden said to members of the 82nd Airborne Division on March 25. Addressing a small group of them, the commander-in-chief said:
“You’re gonna see, when you’re there – and some of you have been there – you’re gonna see, you’re gonna see women, young people, standing in front of a damn tank, just saying ‘I’m not leaving. I’m holding my ground.’”
In Poland, there are no civilians standing in front of tanks, holding their ground. There is no armed conflict at all taking place in Poland. Was Mr. Biden perhaps giving the soldiers a preview of a very elaborate and realistic training exercise, then? That is unlikely. Far more probable is that he was telling those soldiers they were going to Ukraine – and therein lies the problem because there are currently no known plans to deploy any US military personnel to that besieged country.
Tackling the question of chemical weapons, Mr. Biden clarified to the Fox correspondent that he had meant the use of chemical weapons by Russian forces in Ukraine “will trigger a significant response.” However, at a March 24 press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Mr. Biden said any use by Russia of chemical weapons would “trigger a response in kind.”
A reasonable person, upon hearing that any action will be met with a “response in kind,” assumes that response will be equal to the original action. That’s what “in kind” means. That is how everyone interprets it. If an enemy uses chemical weapons, a response in kind means a counterattack with chemical weapons. Perhaps it was a bad choice of words on Mr. Biden’s part but, in times of war, the leader of the free world cannot afford to choose his words poorly. At the very least, a “response in kind” means a response equally as direct and devastating as the potential chemical attack. It appears, then, that Biden has drawn a red line without using those words.
Without addressing Doocy’s last point about regime change in Russia, Biden moved on to another reporter, only to find himself having to address the same statement. While delivering a speech to a crowd in Poland, the chief executive had remarked of Vladimir Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Though too late, the White House has indeed attempted to walk back the comment, claiming, “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.” And so, Mr. Biden was not being honest when he told Doocy “None of the three occurred.” The reporter’s description of Biden’s remarks was, in all three cases, accurate and on record; administration officials have been in damage-control mode for several days – if not for several months.
In such perilous times, careless words can cost lives and, if a US president has only one job, it is to keep the nation safe. Each time Joe Biden speaks about world affairs, it becomes more difficult to argue that he is in command of either his faculties or his emotions. Should he manage to steer America and its allies through the Ukraine crisis without a major escalation, it seems at this point it would be more by providence – or perhaps sheer dumb luck – than anything else. Perhaps Mr. Biden should simply remain silent, and risk only being thought a fool.
~ Read more from Graham J. Noble.