‘I want your point of view, Joe,’ Barack Obama once told his vice-president Joe Biden. ‘I just want it in ten-minute increments, not 60-minute increments.’
Obama understood Biden’s biggest flaw – his mouth runs away with him. He’s a verbal firebomb always threatening to go off.
Last night, oops Biden did it again. As he rounded off his fiery speech in Poland against Vladimir Putin and autocracy, he concluded: ‘For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.’
The White House, in what is now a familiar routine, issued a quick clarification. The President was not demanding ‘regime change’ in Moscow. It just sounded a lot like he did. ‘The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region,’ said the statement. Ah.
Yet this was Biden’s third potentially world war three-triggering blunder in as many days. On Thursday, at the G7 summit, he told the press that if Russia used chemical weapons, his country would ‘respond in kind’. Did he really mean the US would breach international law if Russia did? We just have to hope he didn’t.
On Friday, speaking to the 82nd Airborne about Ukraine, Biden said: ‘You’re gonna see when you’re there – some of you have been there’. This one was a Biden special: a gaffe that fails on two levels, since the Commander-in-Chief not only suggested that US troops were about to be sent in to the war zone – in direct contradiction to his government’s policy – he also managed to imply that his forces had already been secretly operating there.
It’s easy with Biden to blame this clumsiness on old-age: he’s 79, has had two brain aneurysms and now exhibits a number of signs of incipient senility. But the more awkward truth about Biden is that he always has had an almost supernatural ability to say not just the wrong thing but the worst thing. He was called the ‘gaffe machine’ long before people started asking if he was all there upstairs.
If anything, the onset of senility had reduced the dangerousness of Biden’s loquacity. His press conferences are tightly controlled these days. His speeches tend to be short. He relies on a teleprompter. Still, he manages to meander off course. Watching him articulate US policy during a crisis is like watching a drunk trying to drive a powerful racing car around a track. You know where he is meant to be going, you sort of want him to get there for everyone’s sake. It’s funny, tragic and alarming at the same.
Of course there could be strategic advantage in his geriatric ambiguity. It’s not quite the mad-man theory of diplomacy of international relations; more the gaga-theory of diplomacy. If it’s not clear whether the Commander-in-Chief has any idea what he is saying, the enemies of the free world might not know how to react to him.
But the mad-man theory – as practised by President Richard Nixon in the Cold War and a little bit by Donald Trump in his one term – requires a leader to be unpredictable, feared because he seems capable of anything. The trouble with Biden is that his missteps are all too predictable. Everybody knows that he doesn’t know what he is doing. Or, to quote Barack Obama again: ‘Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to fuck things up’.
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