Is Joe Biden mad as a fox, or just mad?
That’s the question facing the world after the president said last week that the United States would respond militarily if China invaded Taiwan.
The shocking remark in Tokyo came just two months after Biden, during a visit to Poland, insisted that Vladimir Putin “cannot stay in power” due to the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
The two bombs sent the White House into DEFCON damage control as aides rushed for ‘clarifications’ to insist there was no change in long-standing policies. They said the US was still only committing to selling Taiwanese military hardware to defend itself and claimed Biden was certainly not talking about “regime change” in Russia.
In both cases, their attempts amounted to denials, the president said what he said clearly. It sparked a series of accusations that unelected staff were subverting the commander-in-chief and gave new impetus to questions about whether Biden really ran the White House.
Given the many flashbacks, cleanups, and clarifications during the brief Biden era, both of these incidents would be fairly routine — and almost comical — save for the serious topics and the president’s own additional statements.
For example, the Tokyo remarks were the third time since taking office that Biden has said essentially the same thing about Taiwan’s military defense. Either he means it or he lost it.
And on Russia, Biden later insisted he meant what he said about Putin, with this caveat: “I’m not backing down…I want to make it clear, I I was not then, or now, articulating a change in policy. . I was expressing the moral outrage I feel – I don’t apologize for my personal feelings.
More than a feeling
Presidents are certainly entitled to their feelings, but one would assume that they would reflect official policies, not conflict with them, as is the case here.
Alas, our main opponents apparently have their personal feelings too, and Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have expressed theirs forcefully. They conducted a joint military exercise in which nuclear-capable bombers flew over the Sea of Japan while Biden was in Tokyo to meet with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan. Their subject: countering China’s aggressive expansionism.
In his book “The Sleepwalkers,” author Christopher Clark masterfully describes how World War I began when no European leader wanted war or believed it would happen. As the title suggests, each was lulled into a false sense of security that produced one of the greatest calamities in history.
Are we on the brink of sleepwalking into World War III? No one pretends to blame it, but a global conflict involving the great powers nonetheless seems closer than it has ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
Belligerent language and threats are commonplace, and nations from Japan to Europe are rapidly increasing their military spending.
Even considering the possibility is distressing, especially on Memorial Day weekend, but there’s no escaping the worry now that the idea of nuclear war is quite a common topic in the media and International organisations. Putin has repeatedly waved his nukes, including putting his forces on high alert, as the West rushed to help Ukraine. There are many speculations that he wouldn’t hesitate to use one if he felt stuck.
A New Axis of Evil
Likewise, China is rapidly expanding its nuclear stockpile and has warned that the United States will pay an “unbearable price” if it helps Taiwan militarily. Last summer, a video from the Chinese Communist Party was more explicit, warning Japan of “full-scale war” involving nuclear weapons if Japan interferes with China’s control of Taiwan.
Russia and China clearly form a new axis of evil, but Biden’s role is surprisingly provocative. While he breaks the habit of recent Democratic presidents of presenting a weak face to the world, there is a difference between securing peace through force and haphazardly launching into major conflict with cowardly talk.
Some Biden defenders say he is deliberately creating ‘strategic ambiguity’ about his intentions to keep China and Russia guessing, but there’s at least an equal chance that his swerve so far off the script is evidence of the mental decline that we see elsewhere in his behavior.
Still others insist that the ambiguity is valuable even if Biden didn’t mean what he said about Putin and Taiwan. This is nonsense, because Biden’s bellicose words could lead to an accidental Armageddon if Russia and China assume America is preparing for war when it isn’t.
Biden’s recent aggressiveness also contrasts with positions he’s held recently. Despite months of Russian buildup on the Ukrainian border, he did nothing but talk until the actual invasion in February. Even then, he was content to impose sanctions by slap on the wrist, openly fearful of provoking Putin.
After European leaders, themselves ashamed of the European public, began sending military and humanitarian aid, Biden vetoed a plan for Poland to send MiG fighters to Ukraine, saying that this would be “escalation”.
A warlike turn
More recently, he reversed his stance and went all-in, sending a relentless stream of billions of dollars and top-notch military equipment. And although he promised there would never be American boots on the ground, there is now talk that he will send special forces to guard the reopened embassy in Kyiv, a task normally assigned to the Marines.
If those troops come under fire, U.S. forces could quickly battle Russian forces — the very situation Biden has declared for months should be avoided.
The president is following an equally hawkish development on China. On campaign in 2019, he mocked Donald Trump’s tough stance saying, “Is China going to eat our lunch?” Come on man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad people.
Yet we are now apparently ready to go to war for Taiwan. I say apparently because Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s major speech on China last Thursday was more muddy than muscular.
So maybe our policy in China is to speak loud and carry a small stick.
Rising global tensions and doubts about the president’s ability to manage them recall Robert Gates’ infamous assertion that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue for the past four decades”.
Gates made the scathing comment in a 2014 memoir, and last year cited Biden’s botched and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan as current evidence.
This history, coupled with the endemic national disasters defining Biden’s tenure, means we see him at a later stage in his life in bigger work, making bigger and more dangerous mistakes.
Finally, it is fair but not very comforting to recall Barack Obama’s warning about his former vice-president: “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to mess things up”.