What We Have Here Is a Failure to Anticipate

Joe Biden speaks in front of an image of Vladimir Putin. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

If we are, as President Joe Biden insists, today closer to nuclear “Armageddon” than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis, shouldn’t we be … doing  … something

Biden’s casual remarks about the likelihood of a thermonuclear holocaust were just one in a series of daft remarks by means of which the president seems to be practically begging his fellow Democrats to spare him the burdens of a seeking a second term: A few days later, he lamented the death of his son Beau, who “lost his life in Iraq,” a thing that—let’s go ahead and emphasize here—did not happen. Speculating about Biden’s cognitive capacity—just old and forgetful, or suffering from full-on dementia?—is a Republican obsession, but it is complicated: Biden surely was not suffering from dementia back in 1987, when as a presidential candidate he put forward observations about his life that were not quite fiction, exactly, but events that happened to someone else. (British politician Neil Kinnock, in fact.) Biden wasn’t suffering from dementia when he made up a story about his first wife and child being killed by a drunk driver, a thing that—let’s go ahead and emphasize here again—did not happen. (The two did die in a terrible automobile accident, which investigators said probably was caused by Mrs. Biden; the other driver was not drunk, was not accused of being drunk, was not investigated for drunk driving, etc.) Biden is dotty, and dottier than he used to be, but he has been very dotty for a very long time. 

More relevant to the immediate issue before us is the possible dottiness of Vladimir Putin. Putin has a reputation for being a cold-eyed opportunist, but there are rumors that he has grown isolated, out-of-touch, and paranoid. It certainly seems to be the case that his expectations of what invading Ukraine would be like were wildly unrealistic. Putin may not have Biden’s problems, but we have to consider the possibility that he is no less delusional. 

Nuclear weapons mounted to missiles that can reach U.S. cities are a real thing. Russia has them. China has them. North Korea has them. Even if we treat as unlikely the possibility that Putin’s humiliating fiasco in Ukraine will somehow escalate to a Russian nuclear strike on Washington and New York, the probability of a nuclear attack on the United States—by means of an intercontinental ballistic missile or some other vehicle—is far from zero. 

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