Ole Puddinhead outdid himself last week.
His visit to Europe to attend the NATO summit in Brussels and deliver an address on NATO’s eastern flank in Warsaw presented an excellent opportunity to lay down some serious foreign policy markers and persuade Vladimir Putin that Russia is still welcome back in the community of nations if he’d just make a deal with Ukraine and then withdraw.
Instead, Ole Puddinhead reverted to form.
The men and women who write the scripts for the middling sort of entertainment produced by Hollywood are a pretty unexceptional bunch, intellectually speaking, but even the dimmest of them can grasp the essence of the “Good Cop – Bad Cop” paradigm (henceforth GC-BC). We know this because it seeps into pretty much every cop show or movie with partnered cops, regardless of genre. The concept is so deeply embedded in American culture that characters who don’t understand it can be milked for comedy.
It’s so simple: the “good cop” speaks reasonably to the suspect, respects boundaries, and plays by the book. The “bad cop” does just the opposite. The goal is to push the suspect into trusting and confiding in the good cop for fear of what might happen if the bad cop is permitted to get the upper hand.
It’s not limited to law enforcement scenarios. Couples may sometimes deploy a toned down version of this gambit with their own children, even without knowing it. It’s such a natural ploy that children very early on tend to identify which of their parents is the more lenient and adapt their behavior accordingly. You may not know whether you or your spouse are the stricter disciplinarian or the more parsimonious with money, but your kids know.
It is therefore stupefying to watch the political and military leaders of the western world struggle so mightily with a concept that most kids have mastered by preschool.
This past week’s NATO summit offered an excellent opportunity to put on an international master class in GC-BC. The American president and the EU’s heads of state could have coordinated quite a show for Vladimir Putin.
But that’s not what happened.
On Thursday evening, Berlingske published a Ritzau news service article that tried to put a good spin on the Thursday session, but its concluding paragraphs were not encouraging:
There is growing concern that Putin will use chemical, biological or ultimately nuclear weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine.
If that happens, the West will be expected to respond again. But at present there is no agreement on whether this should be done by, for example, completely closing down the purchase of Russian gas, oil and coal, which will particularly affect countries such as Germany and Italy.
And there is great reluctance for military intervention that would risk escalating the war.
It’s hard to read that as anything but a white flag of surrender being waved by what has for more than half a century been regarded as the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world.
Our leaders were concerned that Putin might use weapons of mass destruction, but they disagreed on whether that would be grounds for boycotting Russian fossil fuels.
Imagine: they’re talking about the possibility of a Ukrainian city being vaporized by a nuke, or tens or hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians being liquidated with chemical or biological weapons, and they’re just not sure that would rise to the level of a total boycott. And they’re afraid that direct military intervention at that point—the point at which a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon had just been used on European soil—would risk escalating a war.
On Friday evening I heard TV2 News reporters down in Warsaw wondering aloud what NATO could do “without provoking Russia.”
Listen: I don’t want America to go stumbling into war with Russia. I don’t want Denmark to. I don’t want NATO to.
But you have to add “right now” to each of those declarations.
And: “unless and until we can agree on exactly what we’re trying to achieve.“
And lastly: but only if we have the stomach to fight all the way through to that victory.
It was only about six weeks ago that Joe Biden said to global astonishment: “I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do.”
At that time, everybody in his administration—his dingbat veep and his hapless Secretary of State among them—was assuring everyone that economic sanctions would deter Putin from invading Ukraine, a reality Ole Puddinhead himself denied emphatically at a Thursday press conference.
Critics from the left and right, within America and across the west, immediately expressed their concerns that Putin would interpret Biden’s weak and impotent language as a “green light” to invade. Ole Puddinhead addressed that criticism by saying: “If any — any — assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion,” which would result in a “severe and coordinated economic response.”
So he’d sent not just one but two signals of weakness: first, hey, if it’s just a little invasion, maybe it’s not such a big deal. And second, well, actually any invasion is an invasion, but our response will be purely economic anyway.
Critics suggested that such a declaration of weakness would give Putin very little reason to refrain from invading. He obviously wanted to invade—everyone knew that, including Ole Puddinhead (who wouldn’t shut up about it all winter)—so announcing that we had no will to take any military action would obviously be perceived favorably in the Kremlin. As it was.
And we’ve seen the results.
The same idiots behind that policy of “please don’t invade Ukraine because it would make us angry and we would have to do sanctions and stuff, but nothing military, don’t worry about that” are now saying “please don’t use WMDs because it would make us angry, etc., etc.”
In January it was a green light for invasion. Here in March it appeared to be a green light for weapons of mass destruction.
A Thursday evening DR article about the NATO summit concluded with PM Mette Frederiksen saying “The west can do a lot, when the west wants to. And fortunately the west wants to.”
This is the kind of gaseous pap we’ve all become accustomed to. We’re being conditioned to pretend it’s meaningful, that it’s actually saying something, when in fact it’s an entirely empty statement. It’s the kind of fluff the American vice-president sputters out when pressed on something (“the significance of the passage of time,” for example). Generalities, platitudes, a vast yawning emptiness filled with tinkling words.
The west can indeed do a lot when it wants. And it truly does seem to want to do a lot right now: a lot of meetings and summits and conferences and resolutions. And most of all, a lot of talking about just how splendidly the west has come together at this critical moment.
Our western leaders bungled diplomacy so badly that Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale land invasion into Ukraine, but they’re proud of their conduct. It’s their finest hour! They’re just like Churchill! And very few voices in our media have had the courage to confront them on it—to ask (for example), “In what ways is our unity helping Ukraine, which by all accounts appears to be mostly a pile of burning embers?”
I understand entirely the western leaders’ lack of stomach for a fight with Russia. No one wants that—no one.
But we told him right up front we weren’t going to put up a fight. All of us. We went full Good Cop – Good Cop on Vladimir Putin.
We didn’t have to.
What if, say, Emmanuel Macron had stood up in the middle of the summit and just gone off? Started talking crazy, talking about how if Monsieur Putin uses just one WMD, then, alors!, La France will open such a can of nuclear whup-derriere on Moscow that Napoleon himself will come up from Hell just to watch.
Then maybe Biden and Johnson and Schotz could have been all, “Whoa there cowboy, hold on,” and Macron would be all, “No, seriously, assez de la merde!, I’ve had it, we’ve got these nukes, why not use them? When better? What more deserving target?” And everyone would turn to Putin and be like, “Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, you’re our only hope! We don’t know how much longer we can hold this raving Frenchman back!”
And with every sign Putin gave of de-escalating, everyone but the goggle-eyed, spittle-flecking Macron would hail the Russian president as a hero for his courage and bravery because we know how hard it is for him, but his commitment to world peace is so important, and yada yada yada.
That’s an insane scenario made up by a guy who’s never served in the military or worked for the government. But it’s already better than the scenario in which we stroke ourselves for feeling really bad about the destruction of a European nation while we keep telling Putin that we’d almost certainly never lift a military finger against him, even if he vaporized a Ukrainian city.
And that’s the scenario we’re in.
I refuse to believe the west doesn’t understand the message it sends. So I was unable to see the NATO summit as anything but a signal of surrender—an acquiescence to the continuation of horrors being visited upon Ukraine.
Apparently I wasn’t the only who thought the fecklessness about the possible use of chemical weapons in particular was problematic.
Earlier I mentioned that there were some journalists who shared my concern that the happy talk coming out of the NATO summit might not have offered much in the way of incentives for Russia to reconsider their martial adventurism. Ole Puddinhead was asked pointedly by one such journalist how the U.S. would respond if Putin were to use chemical weapons in Ukraine.
“It would trigger a response in-kind,” he replied (at the tail end of a bumbling word soufflé).
Biden appeared to be suggesting that America (or NATO) would respond to the use of a chemical weapons attack with a chemical weapons attack of its own.
Which wasn’t a genuinely awful response, strategically, insofar as it might have given Putin pause. It could have been a passable Bad Cop gambit.
Except the western press was so appalled at the idea of chemical weapons being used under any circumstances that they pushed for clarification. Which they eventually got, in the form of reassurances from the White House that the U.S. would never use chemical weapons under any circumstances, no matter what, ever, and the president had never intended to suggest otherwise.
On Friday, Biden was addressing U.S. troops stationed in Poland and told them they would see the bravery of the Ukrainian people first hand “when you’re there.”
The 82nd airborne was going to be sent into Ukraine? Really?
The White House immediately scrambled to correct the president: “The president has been clear we are not sending US troops to Ukraine and there is no change in that position,” a spokesman told the New York Post.
And then, on Saturday, the pièce de resistance:
“For god’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Those were my exact thoughts when I heard Ole Puddinhead say: “For god’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Except I was thinking of Ole Puddinhead himself.
The American president, on the other hand, was speaking to a gathering in Warsaw and had delivered the line at the end of (yet another) barky speech about the wonderful togetherness with which the west is standing unified in a stunning show of collective unity and gritty determination and resolve while Ukraine is razed to the ground.
“This man” in Biden’s version was obviously Vladimir Putin. Saying that he “cannot remain in power” was perhaps the stupidest thing Joe Biden has ever said—and that, me hearties, that is no small thing.
According to pretty much every news source on the planet, the White House immediately went into overdrive to inform the world that the president hadn’t said what he’d said, and that even if he did it’s not what he meant, and besides it wasn’t scripted so it doesn’t count anyways, you guys. Seriously: c’mon, man!
“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,” a White House official said.
Biden’s line that Putin “cannot remain in power” was not in his prepared remarks, a White House official said.
Biden’s own team gave us two options: we could believe the man didn’t say what he said, or we could believe he did but it wasn’t part of his script so it doesn’t count.
Is there anyone out there still wondering why his handlers used to tell him he’d “get in trouble” if he went off script?
Except this time he’s not just getting himself in trouble: he’s getting the entire western world in trouble.
And for once the entire western world seems to understand as much.
Mirco Reimer-Elster, whom I think I’ve described as the least worst of the Danish media’s “America experts,” even described the president’s words as an “epic fuck up.”
He said it in English, so you can’t even blame my translation.
Similar assessments can be found all over the internet, from the left and the right.
CNN did their best to put a nice spin on the headline (“Biden’s personal rivalry with Putin more intense than ever after dramatic final day of US President’s Europe trip“), but even they seemed to struggle with the statement:
When he returned to his hotel, aides briefed Biden on the strikes in Lviv. A few hours later, propelled by heartache and anger, Biden walked into the courtyard of an old Polish castle to declare the Russian President “cannot remain in power.”
The very final words Biden would utter on his last-minute swing through Europe ended up being the most consequential, reverberating widely as Air Force One departed for Washington. They surprised his aides, many of whom spent hours honing the text of a speech viewed by the White House as a significant moment for Biden’s presidency. The line Biden uttered wasn’t in what they wrote.
Gathered backstage at the castle, White House officials hastily issued a clarification — one of several on this trip alone — to say Biden wasn’t calling for regime change. But not before the Kremlin issued its own affronted response, saying Russia’s ruler is “not to be decided by Mr. Biden.”
Ole Puddinhead was clearly intoxicated by the sound of his own speechifying there in Warsaw; his ad-lib threat was, I’d guess, just intended as a little improvised riff to play off the crowd’s enthusiasm for all his pretty talk about freedom and liberty prevailing because Unity! and Resolve! and etc., etc.
(Also, of course, according to CNN, there was all that heartache and anger driving him.)
Some of the more excitable types on the left actually praised Biden for this line because they thought it sounded tough. (They’re neurotic and insecure people who think the rest of us are just as terrified of words as they are.) Some of them even compared it to Reagan’s celebrated “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” line (which appalled leftists at the time it was uttered, so I oppose at least it’s progress that they finally recognize the significance of that speech).
But Reagan did not say, “Mr. Gorbachev must be removed from power.” Ole Puddinhead did not say “Mr. Putin, withdraw from Ukraine.” These were very different approaches by very different men in very different scenarios.
Let’s clarify for the benefit of the kids in the back row.
According to the popular cliché, muggers often address their intended victims with the phrase, “your money or your life.”
The victim is being offered a choice: they can hand over their money and live, or hold onto it and die (at which point it will be taken from their corpse). Robbers deploy this tactic on the assumption that most people are less attached to their money than they are to their lives, and will therefore hand over their money without escalating things.
What kind of robber tells his victim, “Give me your money and then I’m going to kill you?”
By informing the victim he’s going to kill them whether or not they hand over their money, the robber is removing the victim’s only incentive for compliance—and is giving the victim a pretty good reason to put up all possible resistance.
There are clearly people around Joe Biden who understand this—hence the “clarifications” and the insistence the president had gone off-script—but it’s also clear that Biden himself does not.
For god’s sake, this man is still in power.
(And as Glenn Reynolds routinely reminds us, “The ‘cabal’ that bragged of foisting Joe Biden on us must answer for his failed presidency.“)
What makes the sheer pointlessness of Ole Puddinhead’s European Talking Cure even all the more pathetic is that even his accidental call for regime change wasn’t taken seriously by Ukrainians. According to the New York Post:
“No promises, no weapons. Lots of condemnation,” sniffed Kira Rudik, leader of Ukraine’s Voice political party, on Twitter. “What is our hope – that Putin will die of laughing?”
You can’t blame the Ukrainians: their country is being annihilated and they west they long to be a part of is cheering them on from the bleachers and waving the Ukrainian flag without doing a damn thing to actually end the destruction.
It’s not just Biden, but the entire west. We’re been applauding ourselves for all our unifying unity, spewing fine words and marvelous phrases, “standing with Ukraine” by standing aside, declaring that “freedom will prevail” as if Freedom were a massed army mobilizing to drive the Russians out of Ukraine all by itself. Our leaders speak passively, delivering homilies on liberty and justice and decency and assuring us that the forces of goodness and light will win if only we absorb enough refugees and punish Russia hard enough and eat more vegetables and use less gas.
That’s not how it works. That’s childish. It’s like the little Ukrainian refugee child I quoted last week saying she hopes the war will just end so Russians and Ukrainians can live happily to the end of their days.
That kind of naïve optimism can be forgiven in a child: it’s inexcusable in the so-called leader of the free world—and from NATO, and from European heads of state, and from all the other bloviating adults on television and the internet.
Fair enough that we have chosen to stay out of this fight, but we were actually supposed to prevent it. We failed, and now millions of Ukrainians are having their lives shredded because of our impotence.
There are now hard ugly truths in play that cannot be brushed aside with fine words. (Which isn’t to say our leaders won’t keep trying.)
Ukraine is broken. Millions of people have fled the country; millions more have been displaced within it. Thousands have been killed. Incalculable destruction has been inflicted upon its infrastructure. The west couldn’t prevent it from happening.
But our political class is uncomfortable with that. They want to feel heroic and important. They want to borrow some of the valor being shown by ordinary Ukrainians. So they keep saying and doing stupid things to assuage their aching consciences—and no one is saying stupider things at this point than the Commander in Chief of the United States of America.