Joe Biden’s candor is both a good and bad thing, as it is for most people on the upper end of the speak-your-mind scale. For Biden, it’s bad in the sense that it’s led fewer people to take him seriously in his current job and in any presidential bid he might make. That 2009 on-camera crack about the passage of health care reform being “a big f***ing deal” may be his best known verbal spurt, albeit one he meant to be private. The good side of having a very permeable verbal filter is that you can cut through the fog and get to the truth. In that sense, Biden’s emergency trip to Warsaw and meetings with the leaders of jittery Eastern European nations is a good pairing of man and mission.
Biden was in Warsaw on Tuesday, of course, to underscore the American commitment to its NATO allies following Russia’s power grab in Ukraine. By jetting in on Air Force Two, Biden reassures the Eurofearful that Washington will abide by NATO’s commitment to aid any member that’s attacked--just as NATO did for the U.S. after 9/11. There is surely behind-the-scenes haggling between Biden and the Polish and Baltic leaders over how much backup to provide now. Repositioning a few jets so that they’re closer to menacing Moscow is all that’s been done so far. The allies will no doubt ask Washington to revisit the deployment of anti-missile systems that were scuttled in 2009 to the consternation of Warsaw and the Czech Republic. Most of what needs to be done is hand holding, a reassurance that the “Article 5” commitment of NATO is sacrosanct. Russia is unlikely--one prays--to grab Balkan or Polish territory even if a Russian assertion of authority in eastern Ukraine seems more likely than inconceivable. But such a mission is less about defending Warsaw and more about keeping Russia from going farther into Ukraine. (Poland shares a 332 mile border with Ukraine.)
Biden’s first day in the region seemed to go well. Beneath a Polish flag and the banner of Solidarity--the Cold War era trade union movement that helped bring down the Iron Curtain--the vice president sounded all of the right notes: “As we proceed, Mr. President, I want to make it unmistakingly clear to you and to all our allies in the region that our commitment to mutual self-defense under Article 5 of NATO remains ironclad. It is not in question. It is ironclad.”
Americans may think of Biden as a genial uncle or a fool, as he’s depicted on Saturday Night Live, but in Eastern Europe he has more clout. He was a hawk on the Balkans during the 1990's when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee--something which won applause in much of Europe and enmity in Moscow. He also pressed for NATO expansion--a controversial move then and now but one which is undeniably bringing great relief in Warsaw and in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It’s a point Biden couldn’t resist making in Warsaw on Tuesday.
There’ll be lots of debate about how the Ukraine crisis came to be and whether the U.S. could have done anything to prevent it. Conservatives have tried to pin Putin’s landgrab on Obama--charging that his performance in Benghazi or ambivalence about a “red line” for chemical weapons in Syria and so on gave Putin, if not a green light, then a yellow one. Those things surely didn’t help, although it’s hard to imagine that the U.S. ever could have stopped Putin once his man was ousted from Kiev.
You can question Biden’s judgment, his role in Obama’s foreign policy, and how it may or may not have gotten us to this place. But however the world got here, a NATO-expanding, blunt, even intemperate veep seems better suited to the moment than a dispassionate president whose public warnings and private phone calls have gone unheeded by the Kremlin, even if they’ve rallied G-7 leaders. So far Biden’s remarks on his trip have been tempered. In the coming days, they probably won’t be and in the age of Putinism, that makes sense. The time for niceties is over.