It would not be the first time. A senior official of a world power blurts out something that causes a political storm and then, after the race to contain the damage – claims that the remarks were off the cuff, taken out of context and not intended as understood – it turns out that the remarks have achieved precisely the intended aim.
The US President Joe Biden’s recent outburst that Russian President Vladimir Putin “can not remain in power” has been described as shocking. “How can the US president come out and say who should or should not stay in power in other countries without consideration of the will of the people or democratic procedures in that country?” some gasped, as though George Bush Jr had not said that Saddam Hussein had to go or Barack Obama had not called on Hosni Mubarak to step aside “Now, meaning now!”
In these two instances - exceptionally - there was no back-peddling. But this time, Biden administration officials rushed forward to say that his remarks should not be taken literally, he was just speaking from the heart after finishing his scripted speech, etc, etc. But Washington’s message had already reached its intended recipients: some members of the Russian military establishment are now feeling threatened by Putin’s policies. News of these people has begun to circulate in the Western media and evidently some quarters of US intelligence decided to signal Washington’s support in case they had plans.
The same applies to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on how Ukraine belonged in the EU. There, too, EU officials scrambled to lighten the impact against the backdrop of the current Russian-Western dispute. There is no fast track to EU membership; accession takes years, they reminded everyone. But her message had already reached Ukrainians: keep facing westward and turn your backs on Russia. So, if we want to know what officials really have in mind, it might be wise to pay attention to what they say off-script, before the remarks are walked back. In politics nothing is genuinely spontaneous.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.