People wear face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus as they head to a temple to pray in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, April 23, 2022. Credit: Chiang Ying-ying / AP

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“Yes,” President Joe Biden declared with clarity and without hesitation.

The question he was asked related to Taiwan, and whether or not the United States would militarily defend the island if invaded by China.

There was no confusion in the question, nor was there any in the answer. The president clearly stated that the United States would engage militarily in Taiwan if China decided to press things that far. Surprised by the candor of Biden’s answer, the reporter quickly followed up. “You are?” she asked.

“That’s the commitment we made,” Biden said in reply, confirming his original answer.

Setting aside for a moment that America has made no such commitment, this was an important and very welcome answer from Biden. The president did something no other president has been willing to do for a half-century: admit that the United States will militarily defend Taiwan.

We know that we would. Taiwan knows that we would. China knows that we would. But ever since we severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979, America has been playing a rhetorical game, engaging in fictitious diplomatic posturing, hoping not to upset the delicate political and economic balance we were trying to strike with China.

This was the same foreign policy intelligentsia that told us that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — something every American president prior to Donald Trump believed and wanted to say but didn’t — while moving the U.S. embassy would create an international incident, destabilize the Middle East, and incite geopolitical disaster.

It didn’t, of course, and for the same reason this won’t: it acknowledged in words something already universally known to be fact.

Beyond being the truth as all parties already understood it, it also is the correct position, despite the increasingly non-interventionist attitudes of the American public, and their likely disinterest in a potential military confrontation with a major nuclear superpower half a world away.

I understand that feeling, but as we have repeatedly chosen the wrong wars to fight — wars of offensive power projection meant to reshape the world at the point of a gun — we have failed to involve ourselves in other conflicts that are far more justified, such as defending Georgia, Ukraine (twice), and Hong Kong against the naked aggression by Russia and China.

Our foreign policy mistakes have only emboldened these despotic governments to continue to push their boundaries, making a conflict in Taiwan infinitely more likely.

This threatens vital strategic interests of the United States in three ways. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is a moral responsibility to consider. Taiwan is an independent republic, not — as the Chinese claim — a part of China. Allowing a free, democratic people to fall to despotism through our depraved indifference would be an unconscionable moral failing.

Second, consider the material importance of Taiwan. Through the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, it is the world’s largest producer of semiconductors. Taiwan’s advanced chipmaking capability makes it vital for world security. Allowing that productive capacity to fall into the hands of a geopolitical adversary like China would be an unmitigated disaster.

Third, there is the geopolitical and strategic importance of Taiwan. Lest you think that is only about “American interests,” the island is also at the heart of the defense of countries like Japan and the Philippines, and is the centerpiece of our holdings in the western Pacific. Allowing Taiwan to fall not only jeopardizes American interests but will imperil countless regional powers as well.

So Biden is right on the issue, and has stated a plain truth that we already knew. Now what?

One of the most alarming things to happen since the president’s comments was the immediate pushback he received from his own foreign policy apparatus. No sooner had the words been spoken when professional bureaucrats sprung into action, assuring us that Biden didn’t actually mean what he said. Biden, for his part, disappointingly cowed to his staff’s preposterous spinning and agreed that he had not said anything at all.

But he did say it. And he meant it. Yet after an elected president made a clear policy statement, it was immediately undermined by the unelected professionals that work for him.

Which brings up an important and now unanswerable question: What then, exactly, is the official policy of the American government now? Is it what Biden said, or is it what his handlers said that he said? Will Biden ever stand up for himself and assert his own authority within his administration? Or will he continue to lay down, allowing his rare moments of political bravery to be undone almost immediately?

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...