Is Joe Biden crazy like a fox, or just crazy?
That’s the question careening around the world after the president said last week that the United States would respond militarily if China invades Taiwan.
The shocking remark in Tokyo came just two months after Biden, on a visit to Poland, insisted Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” because of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Both bombshells sent the White House into DEFCON damage control as aides rushed out “clarifications” to insist there was no change in longstanding policies. They said the United States is still only committed to selling Taiwan military equipment to defend itself and claimed Biden was definitely not talking about “regime change” in Russia.
In both cases, their attempts amounted to denials the president said what he clearly said. That set off a round of accusations that the unelected staff was subverting the commander in chief and added fresh impetus to questions of whether Biden is really running the White House.
Given the many walk-backs, cleanups and clarifications during the brief Biden era, these two incidents would be fairly routine — and almost comical — except for the serious subject matters and the president’s own additional statements.
For example, the Tokyo remarks were the third time since he took office that Biden essentially said the same thing about militarily defending Taiwan. Either he means it, or he’s lost it.
And on Russia, Biden later insisted he meant what he said about Putin, with this caveat: “I’m not walking anything back … I want to make it clear, I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change. I was expressing moral outrage that I feel — I make no apologies for my personal feelings.”
More than a feeling
Presidents are certainly entitled to their feelings, but one would assume they would reflect official policies, not conflict with them, as is the case here.
Alas, our chief adversaries apparently have their personal feelings, too, and Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed theirs in a forceful way. They conducted a joint military exercise where nuclear-capable bombers flew over the Sea of Japan while Biden was in Tokyo meeting with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan. Their topic: countering China’s aggressive expansionism.
In his book “The Sleepwalkers,” author Christopher Clark masterfully describes how World War I started despite no European leader wanting war or believing one would happen. As the title suggests, each was lulled into a false sense of security that produced one of history’s greatest calamities.
Are we on the verge of sleepwalking into World War III? Nobody claims to want it, but a global conflict involving the great powers nonetheless feels closer than it has at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962.
Hawkish language and threats are routine, and nations from Japan to Europe are rapidly raising their military spending.
Merely to consider the possibility is distressing, especially on Memorial Day weekend, but there is no escaping the concern now that the idea of nuclear war is a fairly common topic in the media and international organizations. Putin has rattled his nukes repeatedly, including putting his forces on high alert, as the West has rushed to help Ukraine. There is widespread speculation he would not hesitate to use one if he feels cornered.
A new axis of evil
Similarly, China is rapidly expanding its nuclear stockpile and has warned the US would pay an “unbearable price” if it aids Taiwan militarily. Last summer, a Chinese Communist Party video was more explicit, warning Japan of “full-scale war” involving nukes if Japan interferes with China’s control of Taiwan.
Russia and China are clearly forming a new axis of evil, but Biden’s role is surprisingly provocative. While he is breaking with the habit of recent Democratic presidents of presenting a weak face to the world, there is a difference between securing peace through strength and haphazardly blundering into a major conflict with loose talk.
Some Biden defenders argue he is deliberately creating “strategic ambiguity” about his intentions to keep China and Russia guessing, but there is at least an equal chance his veering so far off script is evidence of the mental decline we see elsewhere in his behavior.
Still others insist the ambiguity is valuable even if Biden didn’t mean what he said about Putin and Taiwan. That’s nonsense because Biden’s belligerent words could lead to an accidental Armageddon if Russia and China assume America is preparing for war when it is not.
Biden’s recent aggressiveness also contrasts with positions he held just recently. Despite the months of Russian buildup on Ukraine’s border, he did nothing except talk until the actual invasion in February. Even then, he was content to issue wrist-slap sanctions, openly fearful of provoking Putin.
After European leaders, themselves shamed by Europe’s public, started sending military and humanitarian aid, Biden vetoed a plan for Poland to send MiG fighters to Ukraine, saying it would be “escalatory.”
A hawkish turn
More recently, he flipped his posture and went all-in, sending an unending flow of billions of dollars and top-line military equipment. And although he promised there would never be American boots on the ground, there is now talk he will send special forces to guard the reopened embassy in Kyiv, a duty normally assigned to Marines.
If those troops come under fire, Americans forces could quickly be fighting Russian forces — the very situation Biden said for months had to be avoided.
The president is following a similarly hawkish evolution on China. Campaigning in 2019, he scoffed at Donald Trump’s tough stance, saying, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks.”
Yet now we’re seemingly ready to go to war over Taiwan. I say seemingly because Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s major address on China last Thursday was more mush than muscular.
So perhaps our China policy is to speak loudly and carry a small stick.
The growing 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 over the past four decades.”
Gates made the stinging comment in a 2014 memoir, and last year cited Biden’s botched, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan as current evidence.
That history, coupled with the rampant domestic disasters defining Biden’s term, means we are witnessing him at a later stage of life in a bigger job making bigger, 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 f- -k things up.”