Mark Davis: With delay on spy balloon, Biden missed chance to show China we mean business | Opinion

For some, the Chinese spy balloon saga was a silly distraction barely worthy of attention; for others, it was a shocking violation of U.S. airspace made worse by days of seeming inattention.

Once the balloon over the skies of Montana became a headline on Wednesday, calls mounted for it to be immediately shot down. It soon became clear this was not going to happen. Stories percolated that President Joe Biden and the Pentagon were worried about potential damage from falling debris.

That’s not an improper concern, but the path over and out of Montana contains millions of acres of virtually unpopulated wilderness. It is impossible to believe that there was no safe intercept point.

Speculation ignited over other possible motivations for the foot-dragging, most notably a perceived Biden administration softness toward China. The administration can note in turn that the balloon was ultimately downed Saturday; critics can reply that shooting it over the ocean after its mission is completed is hardly the picture of crisp decisiveness.

So with wet balloon parts in the hands of U.S. analysts, what is the postscript for these few days that serve to remind us just how brash the Chinese can be in their thirst for American intel?

Anyone familiar with global espionage history can credibly assert the basic fact that has held true since the depths of the Cold War, when our adversary was the Soviet Union: We spy on other countries all the time, and they spy on us all the time.

But there’s a reason this constant dance of mutual spying usually lingers in the background of our daily lives; we don’t usually see blatant evidence of it floating above sensitive military sites. That is precisely what happened. The offending balloon was near a Montana base that holds nuclear missiles, so it was not unreasonable to expect jets to scramble and promptly destroy it.

We did not need to see it on TV from Thursday morning until Saturday, and we did not need to hear hand-wringing about ground concerns as it floated from a remote corner of Montana into a remote corner of the Dakotas.

And as frustrations neared a boil, the very last thing we needed was the gaslighting that all of this waiting was actually beneficial. An unnamed “senior Defense Department official” told Politico that allowing the balloon to complete its path across America “provided us a number of days to analyze [it and] learn a lot about what [it] was doing, how it was doing it, why [China] might be using balloons like this. We have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities. And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more.”

Learning is great. We should all be fans of learning. But the problem here is what communist China has learned — that it may freely deploy an aerial device right in front of our upturned eyes, and we will do nothing until it finishes its mission.

American officials were as eager as their Chinese counterparts to wave off our pesky suspicions. When NORAD first spotted the balloon over Alaska, it claimed it posed no threat or even an intelligence risk. Once we belatedly awakened to its risks and dropped it into the Atlantic waves, the Pentagon official quoted by Politico offered a conflicting combination of comforting nonchalance and feigned indignation: “The balloon proposed no military or physical threat to the American people. However, its intrusion of our air space for multiple days was an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”

Perhaps in the future, our sovereignty concerns will kick in earlier. And perhaps the Pentagon and the president can generate some clarity on the stark concerns this episode raises.

This balloon does not appear to have carried the electromagnetic pulse weapons that are the proper concern of any U.S. officials vigilant about modern warfare. The prospect of EMP attacks short-circuiting American computers, communication and even satellites may seem like a knockoff Tom Clancy plot today, but this is a time to ask ourselves how much we trust current and future Chinese regimes to behave well.

Meanwhile, it would be wise to inform the Chinese that any future trial runs, perhaps masked as additional garden-variety spying, will be met with further missiles from American fighter jets — and that next time, we won’t sit on our hands for a week.

Mark Davis hosts a morning radio show in Dallas-Fort Worth on 660-AM and at Follow him on Twitter: @markdavis.