United States: The Chinese Balloon the Biden Team’s Hot Air

FEBRUARY 23, 2023

Over the past 60 years, U.S. presidents have benefitted from advice from moderate and pragmatic advisers as well as examples of presidents ignoring such advice and suffering the consequences. President John F. Kennedy was not admirably served by his secretaries of state and defense, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, but a little-known U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Llewellyn Thompson, former ambassador to the USSR, provided the off-ramp that resolved the Cuban missile crisis without use of force. An official in the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, George Ball, provided superb advice that challenged the Cold War thinking of the “best and brightest” leftovers from the Kennedy administration, but Johnson ignored Ball and blundered into the tragic Vietnam war.

President Jimmy Carter had advisors to his left (e.g. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Marshall Shulman) and right (National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski), but unfortunately ignored the wisdom of Vance and Shulman on key issues involving the USSR. The Reagan administration was going nowhere in resolving national security issues, until a new secretary of state, George P. Shultz, and a Foreign Service Officer, Jack Matlock, provided the guidance that led to the breakthrough on arms control negotiations and detente in the 1980s.

President George W. Bush’s first foreign policy crisis took place in his first 100 days, when his vice president and his secretary of defense took a militant stance to resolve a crisis with China. A U.S. intelligence aircraft operating close to the Chinese border had been forced to land on a Chinese island. Fortunately, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State, Colin Powell, serving as secretary of state, convinced Bush that the crisis could be solved with diplomacy and not with diplomatic, let alone military, coercion.

The crisis with China in April 2001 provides an interesting case study for the current handling of the Sino balloon. Bush’s presidential memoir, “Decision Points,” oddly offers no discussion of the issue, but it was a serious test of his national security team and revealed the hard-line thinking of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who paired later in the year to press for the invasion of Iraq. Powell strongly opposed the invasion at the outset of the debate but, unlike the earlier crisis with China, he eventually succumbed to the pressure from the twin troglodytes and even gave the obtuse and deceitful defense of the Iraq war in a speech to the UN Security Council on February 2003.

In the China crisis, Powell convinced the president to take a diplomatic tack and ignore the bellicose advice from Cheney and Rumsfeld. Powell and his staff produced a letter (“Letter of the Two Sorries”) that expressed regret for the death of the Chinese pilot and the unauthorized landing of the U.S. plane on Hainan Island that houses sensitive Chinese military facilities. As a result, the crew of 24 was released within ten days and the disassembled intelligence plane was returned to the United States. Bush wisely ignored the criticism from the China hawks of the day.

The moderates in the ill-fated Trump administration turned out to be former and current three and four-star generals, who tried to guide the president away from the use of force and to encourage diplomacy. Ironically, a graduate of West Point, Mike Pompeo, was serving as secretary of state; he didn’t believe in the efficacy of diplomacy and his bumptious style made most matters worse. Another chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, made a major contribution in the last months of the Trump administration by signaling to China that the United States had no evil intentions toward Beijing.

The Biden administration is noteworthy because it offers the classic example of group think with virtually every member of the national security team singing from the same song book and providing no examples of more moderate or pragmatic advice to challenge the conventional wisdom, let alone think outside-the-box. The panic over the Chinese balloon event provides a perfect example of the Cold War thinking of the Biden team and the lack of diplomatic skills. After all, the first Chinese reaction to “l’affaire balloon” was to express “regret” and to acknowledge “respect” for the U.S. decision to postpone Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing, which suggested that there was a missed opportunity in the making.

The balloon crisis has exposed two major problems with Biden’s overall handling of foreign policy. First of all, there is no sign of what Biden wants from China on the key political and economic issues that confront the United States, which also characterizes U.S. policy toward Iran and North Korea for that matter. Second, Biden appears to be going along with the anti-China warmongering that is dominating the discussion of China among policymakers, politicians, and pundits. Third, is there a pragmatist in the house?

Blinken finally got to Munich last week, but the discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi were predictably contentious, similar to his first meeting with Wang Yi two years ago. The Secretary of State even warned publicly that Chinese supply of weaponry to Russia would lead to “serious problems” with the United States, which ignores the fact that Washington is not holding a strong hand in the bilateral relationship and that public warnings are not the best way to impress Xi Jinping at this point.

Congress is certainly doing its part in the war of polemics. The House of Representatives in an unusual display of bipartisanship condemned the Chinese balloon in a 419-0 vote; only China could produce such congressional unanimity. At the same time, the House Financial Services Committee prepared 17 bills to isolate China’s economic and financial system, which ignores U.S. dependence on Chinese imports to conduct its infrastructure campaign. If Congress had a sense of humor, it would address the fact that a $500 thousand Sidewinder air-to-air missile was used to down a $12 research balloon that probably had been launched by a group of midwestern teenagers.

The most recent example of anti-China fervor appeared as the lead article in the New York Times on February 18 that highlighted Beijing’s “edge at high altitudes” as the newest “battleground” in Sino-American relations. The Times compared the Chinese lead to the “so-called missile gap” with the Soviets during the Cold War, but never acknowledged that there was no gap. In fact, there was a “gap,” but it reflected the U.S. lead in strategic weaponry. Nevertheless, the Kennedy administration used the phony gap to justify a new wave of spending on strategic weaponry, beginning the rivalry with Moscow regarding multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on intercontinental missiles. This new step in the weapons race was fueled by the United States.

As Mark Twain said, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”

* Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.