Someone had to say it — and Biden did

President Biden says his recent remarks about Vladimir Putin were never meant to endorse a policy of “regime change” in Russia, but that he had an emotional reaction to meeting with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. That’s good enough for me.

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In Michael Kinsley’s immortal definition, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” By that standard, the term would definitely apply to Joe Biden’s recent condemnation of Vladimir Putin.

“For God’s sake,” Biden blurted out, “this man cannot remain in power.”

An international coalition of Nervous Nellies and lunchroom monitors pronounced themselves aghast. You’d think the president had intentionally broken wind at a state dinner or proclaimed a Supreme Court justice’s wife as crazy as an outhouse rat.

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No sooner had he made the remark at the end of a powerful speech expressing the West’s determination to resist Russian aggression — Biden warned Putin not to advance “on one single inch of NATO territory” — than White House staff began walking it back. “Regime change” in Russia, they emphasized, is not American policy.

A handwringing Washington Post headline read: “Biden’s Putin remark pushes U.S.-Russia relations closer to collapse.”

Not Putin’s manifest crimes against humanity, mind you, but Biden’s outburst. Might it not push Putin’s imagined paranoia over the edge?

On the Sunday talk shows, Republican politicians competed with Kremlin spokesmen to express their shock. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio worried that Biden’s indignation “plays into the hands of Russian propagandists and plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin.”

Kremlin mouthpiece Dmitry Peskov said it wasn’t up to Biden to decide who the Russian president should be. Somewhat laughably, he insisted that was up to the “Russian people,” whose say-so is entirely theoretical, given Putin’s practice of having political rivals jailed or murdered.

Indeed, the Little Czar’s reign resembles nothing so much as a series of footnotes to Dostoyevsky’s prophetic 1872 novel “The Possessed.” Suffice it to say Russia has never experienced democracy, instead lurching periodically from one form of dictatorship to another.

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Even so, America’s imaginary determination to conquer Russia is a major feature of the Putin regime’s propaganda, despite the U.S. having restrained itself from trying since 1945. Anybody familiar with Russian suffering in World War II can understand a degree of national paranoia, although Biden was surely correct to say Putin’s pledge to “de-Nazify” Ukraine is both “cynical” and “obscene.”

Nevertheless, to many Russians, it plays.

That said, and much to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s dismay, everything about President Biden’s strong but measured approach to Ukraine’s agony has demonstrated extreme U.S. reluctance to go to war in Russia’s backyard. First Napoleon and then Adolf Hitler long ago proved the futility of doing so.

And that was before Russia acquired nuclear weapons.

Even so, God forbid the Russian dictator should get his little feelings hurt. Why, he might do something crazy, such as bomb Ukrainian apartment buildings, hospitals and orphanages.

War crimes, all.

Even President Emmanuel Macron of France, a stalwart NATO ally, expressed a degree of concern with Biden’s outburst. “I wouldn’t use this kind of words,” Macron said in a television interview. He said he hoped to broker a cease-fire and a Russian withdrawal by diplomatic means. “If we want to do this,” Macron added, “we mustn’t escalate, neither with words nor with actions.”

Down at the police station, this tactic is known as the good cop/bad cop approach to dealing with recalcitrant suspects. Cops use it because it works. Do you want to cut a deal with the very angry American president or the more understanding French one?

Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, put it another way. President Biden, he said, had used words “that must make Putin clearly understand he has to stop.” The American president, he added, made “a very clear speech, he used resolute words ... But let’s remember that on the other side, Putin uses bombs.”

Was Ronald Reagan wrong to call the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire”? Was it a terrible gaffe by a doddering old man to personalize the Cold War when Reagan urged, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”? Many thought so at the time, but few would say so now.

In his Warsaw speech, Biden cast the Ukraine crisis as a new Cold War, a generational conflict: “A new great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”

Like blogger Kevin Drum, I doubt Biden’s spontaneous remark will send Putin over the edge. “Quite the opposite,” Drum wrote: “The fact that Biden is obviously very sincere in his loathing of Putin makes it clear that the U.S. and NATO are unlikely to back down in Ukraine.” Putin would be well advised to find a pathway to retreat from a disaster of his own creation.

Good cop/bad cop.

Biden himself now says he never meant to endorse a policy of “regime change” but had an emotional reaction to meeting with Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

That’s good enough for me.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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