July 27, 2009

Michael Kinsley famously observed that, "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth." Vice President Joe Biden's recent comments about Russia are a classic example.

 

In an interview with WSJ's Peter Spiegel published Friday, Biden suggested that Moscow had little choice but to bend to America's will because "They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable."

As Tufts political scientist Daniel Drezner observes,

If Biden was just shooting the breeze off the record, I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with anything in the quotes.  I'm pretty sure, however, that part of "smart power" is not being gratuitously insulting to fellow members of the nuclear club.

Russia, naturally, is not amused.

Calling the criticism “perplexing” in light of the diplomatic overtures initiated by the United States and described as “pressing the reset button,” the chief foreign policy adviser to President Dmitri A. Medvedev told the Interfax news agency, “The question is: who is shaping the U.S. foreign policy, the president or respectable members of his team?”

The adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said the atmosphere between the countries had improved since Mr. Obama’s visit early this month. “If some members of Obama’s team and government do not like this atmosphere, why don’t they say so?” Interfax reported him as saying. “If they disagree with the course of their president, we just need to know this.”

[...]

The White House did not back away from the vice president’s remarks on Saturday, but attempted to smooth over the frayed relations with Russia. “The president and vice president believe Russia will work with us not out of weakness but out of national interest,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said in a statement on Saturday night. “The president said in Moscow that the United States seeks a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia — one that will be an even more effective partner in meeting common challenges, including reducing nuclear arsenals, securing vulnerable nuclear materials, contending with nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, defeating violent extremism and advancing global security and economic growth,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan laments that, "The sad truth is: Biden cannot shut up. But his job as veep requires him to shut up." The reason, of course, is that while Biden's tendency to say what's on his mind is refreshing, it can have serious consequences. Indeed, as Drezner notes, Biden observed in the same interview, "It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they're dealing with significant loss of face. My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you. It just is not smart."

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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