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President Biden could not have been more clear – and that was the problem.
He knows where he stands on Taiwan–and that was the problem, at least according to the people who work for him.
Their position, apparently, is that he didn’t say what we all heard him say – and that led to the “walkback” ritual that has become all too common in this administration.
Even if there are differing interpretations, the White House statement says, it’s important to note that there’s no change in policy.
There is a pattern here, and I’m not sure why the president puts up with it.
Biden is the guy who got elected. The policy is whatever he says it is. Why does he allow unnamed aides to contradict him? If China takes military action against Taiwan, it’s the commander-in-chief who must instantly decide whether to respond.
There’s a bit of a role reversal here, with hawkish Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Newt Gingrich praising Biden’s words and some on the Left saying he went too far. Now there’s a legitimate debate over whether the president took a risky step and put us closer on the path to a military confrontation with Beijing.
But to dismiss Biden’s words as a “gaffe” is just lazy thinking.
The pattern has become unmistakable. Biden called Vladimir Putin a war criminal, then said he was just offering his personal opinion as opposed to urging an international legal process. Biden said Putin shouldn’t be allowed to remain in power – a clear misstep that got us nothing – and the White House walkback said the president wasn’t calling for regime change. Soon afterward, Biden repeated his, well, personal view.
The other day in Japan, CBS’s Nancy Cordes asked: “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
“Yes,” the president said.
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After a pause, and obviously hoping to elicit more, she said: “You are?”
“That’s the commitment we made,” Biden said.
Actually, there’s no specific requirement that U.S. troops get involved if China, emboldened by Putin’s move on Ukraine, decides to invade what it considers a breakaway province. Past presidents have committed only to providing the Taiwanese with arms to defend themselves.
What Biden was doing was breaking through the mushy diplo-speak favored by the foreign policy establishment, in which our policy is one of “strategic ambiguity.” This isn’t even new. He has pledged twice before as president to defend Taiwan militarily.
So which provides the stronger deterrent: a straightforward “yes,” or letting Xi Jinping guess what the American response might be?
The rushing out of the White House statement – “As the president said, our policy has not changed” – did little to calm the global furor.
By yesterday, Biden even seemed back on board. Asked if he would send U.S. troops to protect Taiwan’s democracy, he said: “The policy has not changed at all. I stated that when I made my statement.”
Uh, actually no.
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So is this some form of nine-dimensional chess? Maybe Biden and his lieutenants are playing a good cop-bad cop routine, where the government can officially insist that no policy is changing while the president keeps signaling that he wants tougher action. It’s like when a judge tells the jury to disregard some piece of inadmissible evidence, which prosecutors mentioned knowing full well it would be hard to unhear it.
If that’s not the case, Biden should order anyone who purports to speak for him to stop contradicting him. It does foster an aura of confusion.
Donald Trump used to rip up the policy playbook all the time. Sometimes it was to take a risk (meeting with Kim Jong Un, which in the end got us nothing), sometimes it was a wild scheme (like buying Greenland).
But the prevailing narrative in the press, and later in tell-all books, was that sober-minded aides were blocking Trump from going rogue based on his meager foreign policy knowledge.
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The Biden media narrative is far more sympathetic. He is, after all, a past chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with eight globe-trotting years as vice president under his belt. He is obviously knowledgeable about geopolitics and knows many world leaders.
Unless the mixed signals are intentional, those who work for Biden should stop undermining his pronouncements.