Biden gets ahead of US politics again with ‘genocide’ remark

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(Bloomberg) – When President Joe Biden called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “genocide” during an energy price speech in Iowa, it sparked a now-familiar stampede among aides from the White House to contain diplomacy-laden presidential rhetoric threatening to go beyond official US politics.

Senior officials huddled with Biden after his speech on Tuesday to discuss the moment Biden told attendees their family budgets shouldn’t “depend on a dictator declaring war and committing genocide on the other end of the world.” world “. The remark marked a dramatic turnaround less than two weeks after his administration specifically refused to endorse Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s use of the term.

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After the discussion, Biden walked to reporters waiting under the wing of Air Force One to say the remark was indeed intentional — but also acknowledged that State Department lawyers might feel differently.

“We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether he’s qualified or not, but that seems like a sure thing to me,” Biden said of Russia’s military campaign to force Ukraine under its control.

It was the third time Biden seemed to go over his skis while describing the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin – or find himself explaining that no matter what he says, US policy doesn’t change.

Late last month in Warsaw, he said Putin “cannot stay in power” after the end of the war in Ukraine.

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Aides claimed Biden was saying Putin should not be able to continue to wield power over Ukraine and that he was not advocating regime change in Russia, which would run counter to long-standing official US policy. date. But their efforts did little to drown out the coverage of the aside, which dominated media accounts of his speech.

“Moral Outrage”

Two days later, Biden told reporters he intended to express his “moral outrage” at Putin, that the Russian president “shouldn’t stay in power” and that he would not had no intention of pushing through a policy change.

Earlier this month, the president told reporters he believed Putin was a ‘war criminal’ – even after other US officials said they were intentionally avoiding questions on the issue, citing ongoing investigations.

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Biden’s quick clarification on Tuesday was an indication that the White House had adopted a new strategy to deal with such remarks.

By almost immediately declaring that he intended to make the comment, the president largely allayed concerns he had misspoken. Specifically separating his comments from U.S. policy, other administration officials disagreed with his resolve.

And Biden saw that while his invocation of dire rhetoric may give heartburn to State Department lawyers who agonize for years over such statements, it has little practical consequence.

A declaration of genocide, for example, does not oblige the United States to take any particular action under international law. This situation played out recently with China: the US claim that Beijing was committing genocide against the Uyghurs was diplomatically provocative, but had little material impact on US-China relations.

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And the comments don’t hurt him politically.

A Rasmussen poll taken after Biden’s call for Putin’s impeachment found that 70% of likely voters agreed with the comment, while less than a quarter disagreed. The number of Americans describing Russia as an enemy rose from 41% in January to 70% at the end of March, according to a survey by Pew Research.

The Kremlin also uses such remarks for political purposes, portraying the United States and its allies as instigators threatening Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Biden’s ‘war criminal’ label ‘unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric’, and followed Tuesday’s ‘genocide’ remark with a statement calling it a ‘misrepresentation unacceptable”.

Yet even though Biden has largely avoided the short-term political consequences of his rhetoric, there could be long-term implications for his actions.

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US presidents have avoided evoking genocide for fear of eroding the meaning of the word – seeking to reserve classification only for the most heinous actions. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced at the American Holocaust Museum that Myanmar had finally been added to the official US list, years after the world condemned its actions in 2016 and 2017. Blinken pointed to the rarity of such a determination, as well as the lengthy legal analysis prepared by his department.

“Beyond the Holocaust, the United States has concluded that genocide was committed seven times. Today marks the eighth,” Blinken said.

“International Lawyers”

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday that a similar process would take place to assess Russia’s actions.

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Biden “emphasized that it will be up to international lawyers to determine whether what we see meets that legal threshold of genocide,” Price told reporters. “The president was basing his comments on the horrific atrocities that we have all seen.”

A declaration of genocide could also amplify calls for US military intervention. Clinton administration officials were specifically ordered to avoid labeling the massacres in Rwanda as genocide to avoid provoking calls for US involvement in the conflict.

Biden has firmly ruled out deploying US troops to Ukraine, repeatedly saying it would risk a direct confrontation with the Russian military and the possibility of World War III. But by using the word genocide — coined by a Polish lawyer who lost dozens of his family members in the Nazi-led extermination of European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s — Biden raises the specter of the last world conflict.

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European leaders have so far refrained from declaring Russia’s actions as genocidal, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitting only that Russian attacks in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha were “not far off”. be a genocide”.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday he was “very careful” with such terms and was “not sure the escalation of words helps the cause at this time.”

But the remark earned praise from Zelenskiy, who tweeted to thank the US president.

Later Wednesday, the Ukrainian leader said he had spoken with Biden to discuss enhanced sanctions and the possibility of an additional set of defensive weapons and financial assistance. And, Zelenskiy said, the two leaders spent time assessing “Russian war crimes.”

©2022 Bloomberg LP

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