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Biden needs to show restraint — in his public comments

His 'personal opinions' about regime change and genocide at best confuse people, at worst, unwittingly provide cover for hardliners.

Analysis | Europe

President Biden’s increasingly combative rhetoric over Ukraine is running far ahead of the policies he is prepared to support.

In recent weeks, he has said publicly that Putin “cannot remain in power” and earlier this week he said that Russian forces are committing genocide against Ukrainians. When challenged about his apparent call for regime change or his charge of genocide, he has claimed that he is offering his personal opinion, but presidents don’t have the luxury of expressing personal opinions in public without creating the impression here and in foreign capitals that these words are statements of policy. 

When the president makes public statements that appear to call for the downfall of a foreign leader or accuses another government of one of the gravest crimes, that carries weight with domestic and foreign audiences even if the president doesn’t intend to pursue the policy implied by his words. 

Case in point: When the president says that another government is committing genocide, that creates expectations about what Washington may do in response, and that increases pressure on the administration to take actions that may not be wise nor in the interests of the United States. It also closes off channels of communication with the accused government, and that effectively rules out a diplomatic solution. 

While the decision to recognize a genocide is always ultimately a political one, it is a decision that has to be informed by careful deliberation and evidence, and it is not something to be asserted off the cuff. The White House’s defense of Biden’s statement did not inspire confidence that they understand the problem. Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in response, “The president was calling it like he sees it, and that’s what he does.”

French President Macron has repeatedly warned against allowing rhetorical escalation to get out of control, and he did so again in response to Biden’s genocide remarks. Macron and Biden have approached Russia very differently in the weeks since the invasion. The French president has insisted on keeping lines of communication with Putin open despite evidence of atrocities committed by Russian forces, but Biden has shown no interest in doing the same. Macron has earned the ire of some European allies for his willingness to maintain contact with Moscow, and the Polish government has even likened it to negotiating with Hitler.

It may be that Macron wishes to appear the statesman as part of his reelection bid, or he may believe this is the most likely way to bring the war to a negotiated end, but whatever the reason for it he has been consistent in avoiding provocative language that would make diplomatic compromise more difficult to achieve. While this isn’t as satisfying as a public denunciation, it does seem to be a smarter way for Western governments to proceed.

For the Biden administration, the president’s very strong language creates a different problem for him at home, where he has been under pressure to do much more directly in support of Ukraine. By saying that Putin cannot remain in power and that he is responsible for genocide, Biden has given his hawkish critics ammunition with which to attack him and to demand that he follow through on his statements with more hardline policies. Having raised the possibility of regime change in his Warsaw speech, Biden has unwittingly provided cover for the hardliners.  

The president’s strong language likewise hampers any negotiation that might bring the fighting to an end sooner, and it signals to the Russian leadership that the U.S. is intent on further escalation. To the extent that this rhetoric contributes to making Russian leaders feel cornered, the more likely it becomes that they may lash out destructively on the assumption that they have nothing to lose. It is in the U.S. interest to avoid escalation and direct involvement in the war, and these public statements by the president take us in the wrong direction.

A key problem with Biden’s combative rhetoric is that it creates confusion about what the goal of U.S. policy is. The official line is that the U.S. doesn’t seek regime change in Russia, but the president believes that regime change is warranted and has said so. If you are sitting in the Kremlin trying to make sense of the conditions for sanctions relief, do you believe it when U.S. officials deny that the president’s remarks have policy implications? If U.S. and allied sanctions are not going to be lifted until there is regime change in Russia, as some hardliners insist, that practically guarantees that the sanctions will fail to have any positive effect on the Russian government’s behavior. 

The gap between what the president says and what his administration does encourages hardliners to trap Biden with his own words and close off diplomatic options that should remain available.

Careless rhetoric about Russia and Ukraine undermines U.S. policy and creates a significant political vulnerability for the president that could come back to haunt him. Biden will remember how President Obama trapped himself with his own ill-advised statements on Syria. Obama declared that Assad “must go” on the assumption that Assad’s departure was a given, and he saddled himself with a misguided regime change policy he didn’t really believe in. 

The ensuing muddle marred the remainder of his presidency. It happened again when he drew the “red line” over chemical weapons that he later correctly chose not to enforce with military action. Obama managed to get out of the trap he set for himself with his “red line” remarks, but he did so at the cost of years of attacks that he had supposedly undermined U.S. credibility. 

There will eventually have to be a negotiated settlement between Ukraine and Russia, and U.S. and allied sanctions relief must be part of that settlement. Because he has labeled Putin a genocidaire who cannot remain in power, Biden has also made it much harder for himself politically to provide the eventual sanctions relief that the U.S. will need to offer to secure a peace agreement. 

Sanctions relief for Russia would be hard to sell in Washington at the best of times, and the president has made the task that much more challenging. 

The president is not a pundit or an analyst, and when he makes public statements on important policy issues it is natural for the public and other governments to assume that these statements reflect the policy of our government. There are only so many times that Biden’s “gaffes” and “personal opinions” can be dismissed as having no bearing on the official U.S. position before that excuse convinces no one. The charge of genocide is an extremely serious one, and it can cheapen the accusation if it is made too quickly or opportunistically. 

The president should not make a habit of making provocative statements in the future, and he should not make declarations that go so far beyond what the administration is prepared to back up. Biden deserves credit for ruling out direct U.S. involvement in the war, and he has refused to budge from that position despite constant agitation that the U.S. do more. Now he needs to show the same restraint in his public statements.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the situation in Ukraine, Friday, February 18, 2022, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)
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