Was it just another Joe Biden “gaffe” when the U.S. leader blurted about Vladimir Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!” The New York Times said he “ad-libbed” it. Maybe there should be an aide standing by with an official script so Biden can bellow “Line!” the way actors do when they blank onstage.
Retractions and restatements followed. In their favour is that if you were going to kill Putin, you’d probably not say so. But U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went too far in stating that the U.S. doesn’t “have a strategy of regime change in Russia,” then adding “or anywhere else.” Who doesn’t know the U.S. openly sought regime change in Venezuela (backing Juan Guaido), Libya (ending in Moammar Gadhafi’s murder), Iraq (hanging Saddam Hussein), or Afghanistan (ousting the Taliban). In Cuba they tried killing Fidel Castro 638 times, according to the U.K. network Channel 4.
Hypocrisy isn’t unusual in statecraft; it’s the norm and routinely glossed over since everyone does it. Except, perhaps, for rare cases like this. Last week the UN passed a resolution condemning Russia and calling for sanctions etc., by an impressive 140-5 with 38 abstentions. The not-Yes votes stood for over 50 per cent of world’s population (China, India, Mexico, Indonesia…), however. The abstainers didn’t approve the attack on Ukrainian sovereignty — China for instance clearly decried it. (Despite grabbing Tibet, as India swallowed Kashmir. See hypocrisy, above.) What seemed to stick in their craw were demands for sanctions when there was no such consequence in cases of U.S. aggression like Iraq or Libya.
Journalist Murtaza Hussain even said this opposition suggested “the emergence of a genuinely post-American world.” That’s a bridge too far, IMO. But it at least implies there are conflicts hidden inside the simplistic explanatory structures widely offered to us in this war. Let me point to just two of them.
1. There is implicit conflict even between Ukraine and the U.S. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems desperate to make a peace deal with Russia. He put neutrality on the table versus NATO membership, and suggested possible territorial compromise over “the complex question of Donbas.” This is brave, considering there are domestic political foes ready to vilify him for surrendering too much.
The U.S., OTOH, may see value in extending the war to “bleed” Russia. Hillary Clinton spilled the beans on this in an interview, saying Russia could be trapped in Ukraine by a U.S.-funded force, “As we had done in Afghanistan.” (No mention of the Afghans trapped by those policies.) So the U.S. has avoided participation in peace talks — which is crucial for any final deal — while voicing doubts about where they are going. They support Ukraine’s war effort, you could say, more than its peace effort. Not to mention domestic political benefits for Biden and his party if the war continues. This verges on another overlooked conflict.
2. There is conflict between the U.S. and a potentially more assertive Europe. During the Cold War and post-Cold War period, the U.S. kept Europe largely under control as a sort of branch of its military and economic policies. The control was starting to slip, largely due to China’s rise as an alternate pole and with encouragement by French President Emmanuel Macron. The French have always resisted total U.S. dominance of Europe, just as the U.K. always basked in it. The hellish Russian invasion has reinforced U.S. domination over any nascent moves in Europe toward being a potential “third force” between the U.S. and China.
None of this remotely excuses Russia’s aggression and sadism in Ukraine. But it has implications for reaching a non-military resolution. Biden’s “gaffe” may be less that than an attempt, conscious or even not, to undercut peace’s chance: a response to, in Noam Chomsky’s provocative term, the “great gift” Putin gave the U.S. by “driving Europe into its grip.” We don’t know and probably never will, but it’s not outside the realm of serious consideration.
Rick Salutin is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. He is based in Toronto. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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