Old Dog Bites

American Bald Eagle in front of flag looking fierce
Eagle Eyed

31 March 2022

Old Dog Bites        

by J.R. Thomas

One of the advantages of getting old, a much-underrated state of grace, is that one can behave and say much as one likes.  Behave badly; leave the party early and watch television; go to sleep at the dining table; speak your mind, say what you really think and ignore the tut-tutting.  These are surprisingly gratifying pleasures.  Best of course not to offend your nearest and dearest; you may need their goodwill to put you in a nice nursing home or make sure you take the right tablets at the right times.  But all those years of not offending the clients, or the boss, or those colleagues who might one day turn out to be the boss, have gone.  Dull club bores, who cares if they are upset?  Annoying distant relatives; if they never call on you again that can only be good. 

This may be the stage of life Joe Biden has reached. Regular readers browsing between the lines here – or even along them – have probably worked out that Joe is not this column’s favourite politician.  Shifty, always trying to please all and sundry, the taker of the easy route, and prone to gaffes all his career.  Not our sort of man, Joe Biden, not our sort of politician, and certainly not our sort of President.  (To be fair, we recognise the difficulty in firstly trying to choose between Hillary and Joe, and then even more so the alternatives of Donald or Joe.  Tricky, those choices, and understandable if trembling fingers pressed “Biden” rather than “Trump”.) 

But do we now have a new approach from the President?  Is he finally saying to himself “It’s my mind, I’m the President, and I’ll say it like it is” (rather as George Bush said that now he was President he would never again eat Brussels Sprouts)? On Saturday Mr Biden on his lightening tour of Europe was to be found in Warsaw, Warsaw Poland as Americans say, and he went off the published script to say, apropos of President Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”.  That was not all: “A dictator, bent on rebuilding an empire, will never erase the people’s love for liberty. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.”

And so say most of us; this was rhetoric and passion worthy of Ronald Reagan at his most feisty.  A politician speaking his mind; rare, but when it comes it is impressive. 

Across Europe there were fainting fits and squawks of anguish. The BBC, always to be relied on, rather gave the impression that the President was rampaging across borders with AK47’s and a knife, and condemned Mr Biden for his intemperance – and for the BBC to attack Joe really is a first.  In the Elysée, M. Macron, the great peacemaker, was particularly upset, telling us that he is still in dialogue with President Putin and these remarks would not help. Indeed, there was a thrill of horror throughout what used to be known as the chancelleries of Europe, at the idea that Mr Putin might be upset by this attack on his honour and implied calls for regime change. These, remember, are European governments that have condemned a violent invasion of a European country, and will do anything to stop it – apart from, of course, ceasing buying Russian oil and gas, sending in troops, imposing no-fly zones, sending large weapons (bravo to those who have sent a few ground-to-air small missiles and rifles), and most of all, calling for the downfall of the Russian president and his replacement by anybody who might stop the violence and withdraw the military forces.  It is hard to know exactly what it is the governments of Europe do expect to happen by this display of resolutely jelly-like behaviour, but we know what they fear; Mr Putin firing his nuclear warheads at European capitals.

That is of course not something any of us want. A nuclear war, even a small short one, would be horrific, for the West as well as for the Russians (presuming Europe would fire back).  It almost does not bear thinking about.  But the problem remains that age-old one of civilised democratic states facing rampaging dictators; if you make it clear to your enemy that you will not fight, you are rather leaving him with the impression that he can get away with an awful lot; you are in fact encouraging him to carry on with his attacks.  It was said of Donald Trump when President, that Mr Putin (at that time the great strategic brooder) was unable to get comfortable with The Donald’s mental state.  He feared that Mr Trump was sufficiently unstable and might, if upset, indeed pull the nuclear trigger.  For that reason Mr Putin was careful not to upset him by, for instance, further incursions into Ukraine.  If that was indeed in Vladimir’s mind, then it was an effective deterrent, it seems.   

His impression of Mr Biden must have eased that restraint; it was clear enough that the USA and Europe had no appetite for a fight, and that NATO would remain in its barracks.  That may be indeed the best approach for western stability and prosperity; the implication that the sacrifice of one small country (well; quite a large one) would have to be worth it for the peace of the world.  But the mistake is to say it, loudly, consistently, and over a period of time.  Much better to keep your powder dry, your intentions obscure, and rattle your sabre now and again to make your opponent uncertain.  But alas, Mr Putin was playing his game of poker in the traditional manner but those ranged against him had all their cards turned upwards. 

Until now.  Mr Biden’s words do not really change much; he has hinted that regime change in the Kremlin would be good, not sent a Scud to make it happen, or massed US troops at crossing posts into Russia.  But at last somebody is making vaguely threatening remarks.  

Now this may be Mr Biden taking a leaf out of the Trump Book of Diplomacy of how to make’em very nervous (Volume 3 of The Art of the Deal, not yet in print).  But it sounds much more like an angry old man letting rip at injustice and outrageous behaviour and saying it like it is.  And that version of President Joe Biden we rather like.

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