The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s call for Putin to go is about domestic politics, not foreign policy

Presidential personalization of foreign conflicts is a routine political tool designed to rally popular opinion

President Biden delivers a speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw on March 26. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

“For God’s sake,” President Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “this man cannot stay in power.”

The off-the-cuff remark caused a sensation around the globe. Seasoned international observers perceived ominous notes of escalation and potential policy shift in Biden’s by now quite routine condemnation of the man he holds responsible for the carnage in Ukraine. Biden’s words were “a bad lapse in discipline,” Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass lamented, “that runs the risk of extending the scope and duration of the war.” French President Emmanuel Macron expressed concern, as well. “I wouldn’t use this kind of words,” he said of Biden’s remark. “We mustn’t escalate, neither with words nor with actions.”

On Monday, Biden backpedaled somewhat, saying that his words expressed “moral outrage,” not a deliberate policy. “I’m not walking back,” the president explained. Rather, he’d merely been “talking to the Russian people, telling them what we thought.”

Biden denied that he was calling for regime change, but pundits and politicians worried anyway. Yet such concerns are misplaced and reflect a misreading of both the man and long tenets of American presidential rhetoric. The president has regularly been clear about his low regard for Putin, using phrases like “war criminal” and “butcher,” while also affirming, “the Russian people are not our enemy.” Historically, that sort of rhetoric has shaped domestic politics more than American foreign policy.

In 1917, when asking Congress for a declaration of war, President Woodrow Wilson declared, “we have no quarrel with the German people,” cautioning “it was not upon their impulse that their government” had instigated World War I.

Long interpreted, especially by historians who tend to like the long view, as part of Wilson’s broad crusade for popular sovereignty, his words in fact addressed a more immediate political problem. Fully one-third of Americans were either German immigrants or direct descendants of them. Throughout whole swaths of (electorally significant) Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Texas in particular, German remained a popular tongue. Thus, while British or French propagandists could urge their increasingly war-weary peoples to “kill the Hun,” such rhetoric rang of fratricide across much of the United States. The prospect of freeing their ancestral homeland from despotism, on the other hand, gave German Americans more reason than most to support the war. By personalizing the conflict as a fight against Kaiser Wilhelm and his henchmen, Wilson helped procure not only Congress’s declaration of war — no sure thing during that fateful April — but also inspired German Americans to enlist for the fight in greater numbers than their countrymen of different European descent.

Over the 20th century, Wilson’s practical approach grew into a routine justification for America’s foreign interventions. Indeed, it became a necessary one. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, too, had “no quarrel with the German people” a generation later. Yet, Roosevelt channeled “the conscience and determination of the American people” when adding “we shall do everything in our power to crush Hitler.”

German and Italian Americans formed vital components of any political coalition in 1941. Reflecting the political motives embedded in his claim, Roosevelt made no such statement when describing America’s enemy across the Pacific. Japanese Americans, a tiny fraction of the overall population during Roosevelt’s day, were targeted for internment during the war, and the Pacific theater had a tenor of race-war and annihilation. His commanders understood. In Europe, the ranking U.S. general spoke of liberating oppressed peoples even as his troops conquered Italy and Germany. Roosevelt’s commander in the Central Pacific, conversely, dubbed his job more bluntly: the killing of any and all Japanese. Period. (He employed a slur in the process.)

The Cold War ideological, geopolitical and, on occasion, military conflict offered opportunities aplenty for Roosevelt’s successors to carry on this rhetoric. President Harry S. Truman had “no quarrel” with Soviet citizens and certainly none with the unfortunate masses abandoned beyond the Iron Curtain. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy applied this now-standard trope closer to home. As Eisenhower explained, it was “only the inexplicable actions” of Cuba’s new government “that caused the trouble,” a point reinforced by Kennedy’s insistence that Americans “had no quarrel” with Cuba’s masses. Communist governments, in competition with democracy and, from an American perspective, at war against their own people, were to blame for any and all geopolitical tension in the Caribbean. Gone, too, was the racial animus present in official rhetoric about the Pacific front in World War II. It simply wouldn’t do to urge the annihilation of the Korean or Vietnamese people when multiple presidents claimed to be fighting to save at least half of them from despotism.

Personalized rhetoric outlived the Cold War as well. President Bill Clinton had “no quarrel” with the people of Yugoslavia. President George W. Bush employed Wilson’s phrase in 2001 for Afghans, then in 2003, his message to the people of Iraq was clear: “We have no quarrel with you.” Indeed, presidential messaging on this front linked every 20th century American conflict overseas. Richard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama all discerned “no quarrel” with the citizenry of their enemy-du-jour.

This odd phrase — no quarrel with — written in the early 20th century by a professorial president, reappears even in eras in which intellectualism carries few political benefits, like our own. Yet the formulation matters, because it reinforces Americans’ self-perception that they are a peace-loving people, reluctantly drawn to battle by evil men at war not only with the world, but even with their own oppressed peoples. The idea need not be accurate, only inspirational, especially when offered in the civic tradition that any person from any place can aspire to become an American. It is no accident that our most nationalistic president since 1945, Donald Trump, was also the only one to serve a full term without ever finding “no quarrel with” a far-off people Americans fought.

For more than a century, therefore, presidential personalization of foreign conflicts represents less an articulation of policy than deployment of a routine political tool designed to rally popular opinion to the cause. Even the lamentation that an opposing leader cannot remain in power has marked presidential rhetoric. After all, if the problem is simply bad leadership abroad, regime change could solve their foreign policy woes.

But if history is a guide, Biden’s contribution to this rhetorical tradition should not cause concern. Presidents rarely transform either their public statements or their personal animosity into actual policy. Eisenhower famously refused to provide material support to Hungarian freedom fighters inspired by his condemnation for their communist leaders, lest he spark a wider (nuclear) war with the Soviet Union. Reagan made the same calculus when Moscow cracked down on Poland’s solidarity movement, and when a Soviet fighter downed a civilian jetliner that had strayed off-course. He called out Soviet authorities by name, while, of course, declaring “we have no quarrel with you, the Soviet people,” and stopped short of doing anything that might escalate either crisis. George H.W. Bush proclaimed “no quarrel with the Iraqi people” while likening Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, yet refused to expand America’s Gulf War aims to include Hussein’s ouster. Words are useful, but also cheap, and invariably less costly than war.

Biden’s unscripted remarks, therefore, don’t represent incompetence or even another in his long line of political gaffes. History suggests a simpler explanation. When longing for Putin’s ouster, Biden was merely speaking as presidents do. If history is any guide, his actual policies will remain steered less by his own words or heated emotions designed to bolster support for his war, than by calmer and cooler policy considerations. That is, since Wilson, the American way.