"Loose lips sink ships," proclaimed World War II propaganda posters. The original idea was to prevent the spread of rumors dangerous to morale — and perhaps also to contain classified truths.
President Biden is almost old enough to remember the slogan's initial use. But he could still use a reminder to avoid careless talk. In remarks delivered in Des Moines yesterday, Biden accused Russia of committing "genocide" in Ukraine. Because it's a deeply serious charge that could theoretically trigger an international tribunal, administration officials had previously avoided using the term. Later that day, therefore, Biden was forced to conduct some rhetorical cleanup. Speaking to reporters on the airport tarmac, he clarified that he would "let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me."
This isn't the first time Biden's loose lips have created a problem for his foreign policy. In Poland last month, the president offered the apparently spontaneous conclusion that "for God's sake, this man [Russian President Vladimir Putin] cannot remain in power." Panicked by this rhetorical flourish, U.S. officials insisted regime change is not the United States' goal. Biden, they implausibly claimed, was only referring to Putin's influence over neighboring states, not his position within Russia itself.
These gaffes are more than unfortunate misstatements by a elderly politician with a long history of talking off-script. They threaten to undermine Biden's own largely successful approach to the Ukraine war. Despite calls for a no-fly zone, Biden has rejected direct interventions that could lead to nuclear war. He has also maintained relative unity among NATO members, despite their varying tolerances for military and economic burdens.
Some hawks have criticized Biden's opposition to a providing Ukraine with fighter jets, while opponents of escalation challenged his description of an ideological struggle between "democracy and autocracy." It's impossible to satisfy everyone, yet, on balance, U.S. policy so far has opposed Russian aggression without risking the unthinkable.
But off-the-cuff remarks that evoke hazy memories of the second World War threaten to unsettle that balance. Despite evidence of war crimes, Putin's Russia is very far from Nazi Germany. And while the future of the conflict is unclear — primarily because the Ukrainians have fought harder and better than almost anyone expected — it is very unlikely to end with the surrender of Russian forces or a transformation of the Russian government.
Especially where nuclear weapons are involved, presidents must exercise rigorous message discipline and avoid raising the stakes higher than they already are. For his own good, and ours, Biden needs to keep his mouth shut.