Biden’s words on Putin have the ring of truth, however inconvenient

Douglas Rooks

Douglas Rooks

The hubbub over President Biden’s suddenly famous nine words, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” may quickly recede – or it may become a turning point in the battle against Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression in Ukraine, and thus in world history.

The “global uproar” it caused was already being charted within hours. Emmanuel Macron, the French president who’s likely to be re-elected to another seven-year term in balloting starting next month, used it to good effect – politically, at least.

Macron, who’s continued to speak to Putin during the first five weeks of war, stands for a “diplomatic solution,” and pronounced, “We can’t escalate in either words or actions.”

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations – he of “war of choice” fame – also tut-tutted. Biden’s unscripted sentence, he said, “discourages Putin from any compromise essentially – if you’ve got everything to lose, it frees him up. Why should he show any restraint?”

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Only someone far, far from the battle zones could talk about “restraint.” By contrast, Biden, in Poland, was close to the Ukraine border; he’d met earlier with those scarred by the fighting.

The rest of the media piled on, citing everything from inflation to Biden’s poll numbers in depicting a “scramble” to put things right.

Beneath the furor is a long-standing conclusion among reporters, dating to Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign, that he’s “gaffe prone” – in Washington-speak, a ticket to political oblivion.

But Biden’s heart-felt remarks tap into what just about every right-thinking American, as we once said, is also feeling: Regardless of the invasion’s still-unknown ending, the world will never truly be at peace again until Putin is no longer in power.

There’s a useful term called the “Kinsley gaffe,” coined by journalist Michael Kinsley during his 1980s New Republic days: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

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All those exercising dismay failed to notice what’s happening on the ground. While many Americans hoped against hope Putin wouldn’t launch a full-scale invasion – Biden wasn’t among them – there was the corresponding assumption that, if he did, he’d be in Kviv inside a week.

Yes, Russia may be an economic disaster, but its mighty military would sweep all before it. Even when it was obvious that wasn’t happening, there were still predictions of major assaults that would do the job, however bloodily.

Instead, we see siege tactics and relentless shelling of targets such as maternity wards, schools, and children’s shelters. Conclusion: Putin’s troops won’t soon be capturing major cities or toppling Ukraine’s government.

What’s most likely is a war of attrition, resembling previous Russian campaigns against Chechnya, and its Syrian proxy war. Putin will concentrate on Russia-leaning eastern areas, especially the Donbass region, partially occupied in 2014.

Even that may be difficult; Ukrainians supporting alliance with Russia are disappearing, as the existential threat to their lives continues unabated.

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Despite diplomatic attempts, there’s no off-ramp available to Putin. Having bet his regime on conquering his democratic neighbor, an autocrat cannot retreat without falling.

That’s one grim lesson of history unlikely to have an exception here. So Biden’s words have the ring of truth, however inconvenient.

Also neglected is that the president’s performance in the crisis has been exemplary. There’s no better example than the major European power, Germany.

Since the 1960s, Germany has pursued “ostpolitik” – détente with the Soviet bloc. It was about to open a huge new economic link with Russia, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but abruptly canceled it after U.S. lobbying.

Adjusting to that loss will make gas prices now complained of by American drivers seem trivial by comparison.

And Biden’s success in rallying the NATO alliance after four years of disparagement by his predecessor is nothing short of amazing.

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One never knows what presidential words will become memorable. Ronald Reagan captured a moment in 1987, when, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, he addressed the last Soviet premier by saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Biden’s words may or may not join that presidential archive; history, by definition, is retrospective.

But one thing is sure: No one paying the least attention can fail to draw a contrast with the previous American president, who blocked military aid to Ukraine and coddled Putin.

By now, Americans can understand Putin’s dilemma, after our unwinnable wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan that nonetheless had to end. The difference is that, in democracies, we can vote for peaceful change; there is an off-ramp.

That’s something to bear in mind as we ponder, and act on, the state of our own democracy.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback. He welcomes comment at

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Rooks: Biden’s words on Putin are the truth, however inconvenient

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