The stumbling, bumbling Joe Biden is like the former Soviet leader in more ways than one, writes Daniel Lazare
Remember Konstantin Chernenko? In February 1984, he became the fifth person to hold the title of general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
But then, at age 73, he succumbed to a combination of emphysema, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver after just 13 months in office. The third Soviet leader to die in under three years, he personified a system so decrepit it could barely stand on its own two feet. The Sovietologist, Seweryn Bialer, said Chernenko’s “absolute greyness and incompetence engendered … a feeling of not only hopelessness, but also deep embarrassment and shame”. Cold war historian John Lewis Gaddis described him as “an enfeebled geriatric so zombie-like as to be beyond assessing intelligence reports, alarming or not”.1
“How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me?” Ronald Reagan supposedly quipped. Seven years later, the world would watch in astonishment as the USSR followed Chernenko into the grave.
But now we have a sequel of sorts that might be called ‘Decrepit Leader 1.5’. Featuring Joe Biden in the title role, it is yet another tale of an ageing politician whose frail health and failing brain power are symptomatic of an over-extended empire that is increasingly at a loss over how to proceed.
On March 21, a video went viral of Biden looking dazed and confused, as he stumbled three times when climbing the staircase to Air Force One.2 It was reminiscent of Chernenko’s disastrous performance at the funeral for his predecessor, Yuri Andropov, when he coughed and mumbled his way through the eulogy and then required the help of two aides to make his way down from the Lenin Mausoleum.
But a TV interview that Biden gave two days prior to that viral misstep proved even more disconcerting thanks to prodding by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. The key exchange went like this:
Stephanopoulos: The director of national intelligence came out with a report today saying that Vladimir Putin authorised operations during the election to denigrate you, support president Trump, undermine our elections, divide our society. What price must he pay?
Biden: He will pay a price. We had a long talk, he and I. I know him relatively well. The conversation started off - I said, “I know you and you know me. If I establish this occurred, then be prepared.”
S: You said you know he doesn’t have a soul.
B: I did say that to him, yes ... I said, “I looked in your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” And he looked back at me and said we understand each other …
S: So you know Vladimir Putin. Do you think he’s a killer?
B: Hmm mmm, I do.
S: So what price must he pay?
B. The price he’s going to pay, well, you’ll see shortly. I’m not going to - there’s - by the way, we ought to be able - that old, that trite expression, ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’ - there are places where it’s in our mutual interest to work together, that’s why I renewed the Start agreement with him, that occurred while he’s doing this. But that’s overwhelmingly in the interest of humanity that we diminish the prospect of a nuclear exchange.
Little of these awkward, stumbling words made sense, beginning with the report issued by director of national intelligence Avril Haines on March 15. A typical product of Washington’s mindless ‘intelligence community’, it consists of tautologies, non sequiturs and evidence-free assertions about Russia’s supposed use of “proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives - including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against president Biden - to US media organisations, US officials, and prominent US individuals …”3
Never mind that many of the allegations appear to be true. After all, a flood of reports that came out last year indicate that:
- A Ukrainian company named Burisma Holdings paid Biden’s son, Hunter, as much as $50,000 a month for a no-show job in order to curry favour with Washington.
- Hunter appears in return to have arranged a meeting between a Burisma official and his father, while the latter was still vice-president.
- Hunter subsequently entered into a business arrangement with a Chinese company whose purpose, as he put it, was to make money off “the family legacy”.
- It was a scheme that “the big guy”, as Hunter refers to his father, personally sanctioned.
So Biden entered into a deal aimed at using his name and position to fatten the family coffers. Yet none of this seems to count as far as official Washington is concerned. All that matters, rather, is that Russian intelligence allegedly helped spread such reports and that Putin must therefore ‘pay a price’.
Russia ba-a-ad, US retaliation good. But what did Biden mean by claiming that Putin replied, “we understand each other”, upon learning that he is a soulless automaton? Was he suggesting that the Russian president confirmed the judgment? If so, why would Putin then enter into an arms-control agreement “in the interest of humanity”? If Putin really is the evil dictator America says he is, then why would he care about such trifles?
As for Biden’s “killer” comment, this was rich coming from a man who played a leading role in drumming up support for the back-to-back invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-03; who backed Nato’s intervention in Libya in 2011 and Saudi Arabia’s equally disastrous air assault on Yemen four years later; and who, by his own admission, stood by and watched as America’s closest allies in the Middle East flooded Syria with pro-al Qa’eda jihadis in an attempt to overthrow president Bashar al-Assad. Biden has helped sow death and destruction across the Middle East. Yet somehow Putin is a murderer, while he is not.
Finally, there were those semi-coherent remarks about walking and chewing gum. In Washington-speak, this refers to the ability to engage in different activities simultaneously. But Biden takes it to mean that he can insult Putin one minute and engage in normal diplomacy the next. But it doesn’t work, which is why it was inevitable that Russia would withdraw its ambassador “for consultations” in response and then launch into a war of words. The same goes for the abuse that Biden hurled at Chinese president Xi Jinping during last year’s presidential debates. Xi, he declared in February 2020, is
a guy who doesn’t have a democratic - with a small d - bone in his body … a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uyghurs in reconstruction camps, meaning concentration camps … and this is a guy who I was able to convince should join the international agreement, the Paris agreement, because - guess what - they need to be involved.4
Thus, Biden thinks he can abuse China and persuade it to sign an international climate accord in the same breath. But this is a pipe dream that was also punctured when a US-China mini-summit in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18 erupted in an angry exchange over US efforts to impose its own values on the rest of the world. “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States,” Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi declared, adding that China would not accept “unwarranted accusations from the US side.”
Breakdowns like these are a sign that the administration is losing control of foreign policy after less than three months in office. And that is no surprise, given that disaster is looming on a half-dozen fronts.
- With violence and chaos on the rise in Afghanistan, it is all but certain that Biden will miss the May 1 deadline for a full-scale military withdrawal that Donald Trump negotiated early last year with the Taliban. America’s longest war - one that is now in its 20th year - will continue with no end in sight.
- With the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord all but dead thanks to the Biden administration’s foot-dragging, the military situation in the Persian Gulf is also looking grim.
- Despite Biden’s February 4 promise to end “all American support for [Saudi] offensive operations” in Yemen, the war in that country continues to escalate, as pro-Iranian Houthis close in on the country’s last remaining pro-Saudi stronghold in the city of Marib, which is about a hundred miles east of Sana’a. If Marib falls, it’s a sure bet that Washington will pull out all the stops to shore up its alliance with Riyadh.
- The crisis along the 2,000-mile US-Mexican border is also at full boil, with police detaining close to 100,000 illegal immigrants last month - nearly triple the number a year earlier and the highest level since 2006.5
While any number of factors are driving the refugee surge, far and away the most important is one that no one wants to talk about: ie, a half-century-old war on drugs that has turned portions of Central America into a free-fire zone in which corrupt national police forces battle it out with hyper-vicious local gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18. The refugee crisis along the Mexican border thus turns out to have the same root cause as the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, ie relentless US warfare across the global south. But there’s zero chance of the US calling off the drug war, since coming up with an alternative would require a level of intellectual analysis and political resolve that is beyond Washington’s reach. So the disaster can only continue.
Finally, there is Russia and China. Ever since Trump committed foreign-policy heresy by declaring in mid-2015 that he would “get along very well with Vladimir Putin”, Democrats figured that bashing Russia was the best way to win back the White House. But now they are stuck with the problem of how to do business with a country they’ve spent the last five years vilifying.
Biden’s Chernenko-like brain is too sluggish to figure a way out. The administration is similarly unable to figure out a way of avoiding a collision with Beijing in the South China Sea, which is host to a third of global shipping. Accusing China of a “pernicious … whole-of-party effort to coerce, corrupt and collapse governments, businesses, organisations and the people of the Indo-Pacific”, admiral Philip Davidson appealed to the Senate armed services committee earlier this month for $23 billion over five years for an anti-China naval build-up.6
The US would be apoplectic if China tried anything remotely similar off the coast of California. Yet the Biden administration continues to play an exceedingly dangerous game out of sheer force of habit, even though it is increasingly apparent that it is doing so with less than a full deck.
The similarities between Biden and Chernenko go deep. Both are long-time apparatchiks - one by virtue of spending 32 years in the Senate and the other thanks to a 40-year party career that began with the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) in 1929 and continued on as a propagandist in Krasnoyarsk and then Moldavia after World War II. Both made their way up the greasy pole by attaching themselves to powerful political leaders - Leonid Brezhnev in the case of Chernenko, beginning in 1956, and Barack Obama in the case of Biden, beginning in 2008. Both were bland centrists, whose chief selling point was that they would not rock the boat. “It’s OK,” a Politburo member reportedly said of Chernenko. “Kostya is an agreeable guy - one can do business with him.” Similarly, Biden’s main virtue in the eyes of Democratic insiders was that he was not Bernie Sanders and would therefore stick firmly to the middle of the road.
Above all, both were devoted to the status quo - or, in Biden’s case, to the pre-Trump status quo ante. Both took charge of power structures that were running on empty, and both, ironically, confronted a particularly difficult problem in Afghanistan. Chernenko died before he could mess things up even worse than they already were. But Biden may still have time to stumble into disaster.
JL Gaddis The cold war: a new history New York 2005, p228; S Bialer, ‘The death of Soviet communism’ Foreign Affairs 70, No5.↩︎