Several days after the flight of a Chinese spy balloon over the U.S. became public, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered its downing. He explained the initial delay was due to a desire to protect civilians from falling debris, be it from the balloon or from any missile used to down it.
Republicans sought advantage from Biden’s slow reaction. “Would Trump have let China fly a spy balloon over our country? Would Reagan? JFK? Truman? No, no, no, and no,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted on Feb. 3, adding, “So why’s Biden letting China off the hook?”
Jordan’s tweet did not age well. Parrying to seek political advantage, Biden appointees in the Pentagon made it known that Chinese balloons did, in fact, overfly the United States during the Trump administration.
Arguments Fall Flatter Than Balloons
Trump’s team, perhaps uncharacteristically, kept the alleged Chinese balloon overflights of Hawaii, Texas, and Florida secret. The Biden administration also tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the most recent violation of U.S. airspace secret in order to prevent any interruption of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to China.
But the political parrying misses the point, and the balloon fiasco indicates a broader problem: Democrats and Republicans have become so distracted by point-scoring, virtue signaling, and battling over social issues that they have collectively dropped the ball on the fundamental purpose of the federal government: to protect American sovereignty.
There is little difference between tolerance for balloon overflights and illegal immigration. Both represent government failure, in the first case to defend airspace, and in the second to secure borders. In both cases, there is also a troubling pattern in which the government circles the wagons and seeks to impose a cloak of secrecy in order to avoid meaningful action. Only when residents of Montana noticed and publicly photographed an object that appeared almost like a second moon in the sky did the White House react.
Arguments that the Pentagon needed to wait until the balloon traversed the country to safeguard the public fall flat: After all, the balloon entered American airspace off the coast of Alaska. If protecting Americans from falling debris is the issue, the United States might have intercepted the balloon off Alaska’s 12 miles of territorial waters. If that would have interfered with recovery — it is unclear whether the U.S. Navy has succeeded in recovering much balloon debris from the Atlantic — then there was always the land option. Vast swaths of not only Alaska but also Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska are sparsely populated.
A Matter of Focus
Across administrations, the White House also shirks responsibility for securing borders. Whether under Presidents Bush, Obama, Trump, or Biden, administrations focus most on border defense only when news breaks of mass breaches. To sympathize with illegal aliens is to reward line jumpers and bypass a much more necessary conversation about the number and character of legal immigration. There is little difference between the demand for open borders on immigration and the failure to defend America on all other matters.
That Trump failed to stop balloons does not exculpate Biden. That Biden failed, until forced, does not exculpate Trump. It is time leaders of both parties refocus the federal government on its core mission to secure America from coast to coast and from the ground up. So many other debates on social issues should be secondary, at least at the national level. If the federal government does not have the will or capability to do its job effectively at present, it is time for congressional oversight to identify and help resolve that problem. If they do not, members of both parties will follow their worst instincts and try to cover their own culpability while America’s adversaries laugh at the advantage we are giving them.
Author Expertise and Experience
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).