In ancient times, we’re told, humans sometimes responded to strange sights in the sky — an eclipse, say, or a comet — with terror and hysterics and predictions of the end of the world, with wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was all a bit much, and all very dramatic, but they can be forgiven for their excesses. After all, they didn’t know any better.
What’s the excuse for elected Republicans in Kansas and Missouri?
The now-notorious Chinese balloon appeared in the skies over the region last week, floating peacefully through the area before the Air Force shot it down off the coast of South Carolina. To listen to our leaders, though, you’d have thought the sky was falling.
They took to social media in a madcap scramble to top each other over who could be angrier, who could heap more blame on China and President Joe Biden, who could show the most resolve to meet the threat posed by the giant gasbag in the air.
It was all very silly.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley was his usual demagogic self, accusing the Biden administration of “total capitulation” to China, and firing off an all-caps tweet to “SHOOT IT DOWN.”
Missouri Sen. Eric Schmitt went on Fox News to demand an investigation. “The idea that Communist China has a spy balloon headed towards Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri right now — the home of the Stealth Bomber — is absolutely unbelievable,” he tweeted. “No American should accept this. I don’t.”
Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall proposed exacerbating tensions with China. “Now that the President has postponed Secretary Blinken’s trip to China he should send him to Taipei instead,” he wrote. That’s the capital of Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, and where then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip in August raised Pacific tensions to a boiling point.
Even Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran — usually the level-headed one of the group — got in on the act, demanding Pentagon answers “on what action is being taken to protect Kansans & the US from this threat.”
Threat? Guys, it was a balloon.
Barring any contrary evidence, it seems likely that the balloon’s purpose was surveillance. That’s not of zero concern, which is why the Pentagon was tracking it, but let’s put that mission in context: The U.S. and China spy on each other all the time. The Atlantic’s David Frum points out that the Chinese have more than 500 satellites orbiting the planet, many of them taking pictures of places such as Whiteman. America most assuredly has eyes on Chinese military installations as well. This is how superpowers do business.
The balloon was novel, yes, in that it flew much lower than those satellites and could be easily seen with the naked eye. But the biggest immediate “threat” it posed to Kansans and Missourians was that an overzealous reaction — shooting it down while it passed overland — would bring it down on their heads.
Our senators know all of that. They could have helped Americans by responding with measured concern. Instead, they chose to help create a general sense of panic.
And that’s a problem.
This is not the last U.S.-China confrontation. American officials announced last week that the military is building new bases in the Philippines, a Pacific citadel for U.S. forces in case war comes. But it would be much better if that war is never fought. Maintaining peace, however troubled, will require calm nerves and steady hands.
We need John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis. We don’t need Chicken Littles.
The hope here is that Balloongate 2023 was so obviously a calorie-free drama that GOP leaders in Kansas and Missouri decided they could score a few political points against Biden — or buff their own conservative credentials — without any real harm coming to the country. Maybe they’ll do better in a real crisis.
This time? All they had to offer was a lot of hot air.