“At each pivotal moment,” the senator said, warning the worst would not come to pass, “[the president] has chosen a course of moderation and deliberation… I believe he will continue to do so.… The president has made it clear that war is neither imminent nor inevitable.”
Speaking on the floor in October 2002, then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware would proceed to vote to give President George W. Bush the ultimate power: permission to wage war. Bush, of course, took Biden up on his offer—co-signed by Senators John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Charles Schumer, Harry Reid, Chris Dodd, and supermajorities in both houses—five months later.
By summer that year, the war in Iraq was a transparent disaster.
American elites, particularly the ruling Republicans, became determined to drown out news of a savage insurgency taking out American men and women almost daily, with a drip-drip that the forces of evil were, actually, losing the day. Pay attention to the miserable fate of the Hussein family, settled by New Year’s 2004, not that the search for the war-justifying weapons of destruction concluded the whole thing was a farce by that January; certainly don’t look too closely at the bodies of American contractors in Fallujah, strung up on a bridge in April 2004.
The idea that the people of the world could actually want an alternative to American-style politics and consumerism, or that we actually didn’t know all that much about conflicts a world away, was laughed off as (to use a 2000s term) noob analysis, loony-bin throwback stuff from capital-H History. An emissary of that perspective, Britney Spears told cable news host Tucker Carlson then, “We should just trust our president in every decision he makes.”
There the parallel to today’s mistake—and that is what the present American course on Russia and Ukraine: a flashing-red-light mistake—in trusting the president, there the parallel to the Noughties collapses for a yard.
Because evidently, contra the advice of Ms. Spears, President Joe Biden’s own team doesn’t “just trust” the president in every decision he makes.
The White House immediately walked back Biden’s clarion call for regime change in the Kremlin this weekend—“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” 46 closed his address in Poland. A senior administration official said, “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.”
Donald Trump is frequently reported on as a liar, but outside of “fifteen days to slow a spread,” I’m unsure his White House told a more consequential lie than this world-insulting one the Biden administration just tried out.
As Asia Times Spengler columnist David Goldman noted, “Biden blurted out what Admin officials have been saying in private, as Niall Ferguson leaked in Bloomberg last week. Can’t walk it back.”
Summarizing his reporting, Stanford’s Ferguson said: “As I said last week, the Biden administration has apparently decided to instrumentalize the war in Ukraine to bring about regime change in Russia, rather than trying to end the war in Ukraine as soon as possible. Biden just said it out loud. This is a highly risky strategy.”
Here, the Iraq parallel resumes.
For many Republicans, Iraq was “Operation Unfinished Business,” a reprisal for Saddam’s apparent assassination attempt on the retired first President Bush, and an itch-scratch for those who felt the U.S. should have marched to Baghdad in 1991, during the first Gulf War. Vladimir Putin occupies a similar bogeyman position for leading Democrats, many of whom unironically still hold that the Kremlin anointed Trump president.
Biden has cut a contradictory figure throughout his half-century in power—a self-described coat-and-tie Democrat during the year of drippy hippies, a real-deal CIA stan during the Southern progressive years of Jimmy Carter, then against the first Gulf War, then the second Bush’s man early on as Senate Foreign Relations chair, then Machiavellian, anti-war would-be president, then Old Guard vice president, and now a Democratic establishment president who was not the first choice of the Democratic establishment.
Biden’s move last summer on Afghanistan appeared to open up the possibility that the Biden presidency would be a caretaker administration that ended some of America’s wars. Because this was a capstone, or maybe just because he didn’t give a damn at his age, he could get away with it.
There was hope, among the restraint-friendly right and the progressive left, that this was the real Joe Biden, a throwback to when he and then-President Barack Obama were dovish voices of caution within their own administration (how did that kind of staff happen, again?).
He has real Americana charm, but Biden’s career, properly understood, has not been one at the center of the American electorate, but at the center of the Democratic Party establishment. It is, after all, how the scrappy middle class white guy with middling credentials finally ascended to the presidency leading the credentialists’ party.
Though logorrheic—the young version could talk—both the young and old Biden would never, ever rock the boat. And so it is, when America senses (in my view, erroneously) it can surgically wield a killing stroke against the Great Satan of the Democratic Party, Vladimir Putin.
“You don’t have to do this,” Obama once told Biden, trying to talk him out of running for president in 2020. Now as then, Biden evidently feels he does.
The new American president has abandoned one misguided crusade in Central Asia, only to open a new, much more dangerous one in Europe, all while (once again) letting America’s true enemy in Beijing off the hook. Which is, sadly, another hallmark of Biden’s powerful career.