A General Shows How to Deflate a Hysteria Balloon

As a parting shot before retiring, General Mark Milley chooses to reveal the truth about the Chinese spy or weather balloon that dominated the headlines and even produced a diplomatic incident earlier this year. This is not the first time the significance attributed to a real or imaginary threat may have been slightly exaggerated for political purposes.
Spy Balloon

Spy Balloon 4K Still Image © Broadcast Media / shutterstock.com

September 27, 2023 04:06 EDT

General Mark Milley has used the pretext of his retirement as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to clarify one unelucidated incident that captured the world’s attention at the beginning of the year. With a proxy war against Russia raging in Ukraine, the meanderings of a balloon over US airspace signaled a new casus belli for Americans to ponder, this time from the other great enemy, China.

Last week, Milley informed CBS News Sunday Morning that the balloon was not engaged in spying. “The intelligence community, their assessment — and it’s a high-confidence assessment – [is] that there was no intelligence collection by that balloon.” He confirmed the Chinese government’s claim that the balloon was blown off course when he noted that “the particular motor on that aircraft can’t go against those winds at that altitude.”

For weeks, the media persistently presented what they saw as the latest proof of devious intentions, which many specifically affirmed was planned by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The experts were pushing the message that the US should be preparing not for another proxy war, but this time a real war, a direct confrontation with China.

Political and military personalities, to say nothing of defense contractors, have for years been predicting the inevitability of that war and conditioning the public to expect it. As Michael Klare explained in an article for Foreign Policy in Focus, “A potential 2027 invasion remained common wisdom in U.S. policy circles until this January, when the head of the Air Force Mobility Command, General Michael Minihan, told his troops that he suspected the correct date for a future war with China was 2025.”

But why wait that long? Impatience was already growing. Klare tells us that “Washington continues to obsess over the date of the presumptive Chinese invasion, with some figures now suggesting 2024.” US President Joe Biden has made it clear that the US would intervene in case of a PRC invasion, meaning the contingency plans for war are clearly in place.

The media did their best to present the balloon as a sign that marked the prelude to the expected war. Politicians and the media dismissed the Chinese claim that it was a weather balloon as communist propaganda. The clear-eyed, transparent US had to show its resolution and strength confronted with such an obvious threat to its security.

Writing for Spy Talk, Jeff Stein reports that, with pressure building thanks to media reporting, the military preferred a cautious approach. They reasoned that ”the Defense Department had plenty of weapons to ‘mitigate’ such aerial espionage, but their assurances were generally drowned out by the clamor to ‘do something.’” After all, time is money and only the good old no-nonsense “can do” attitude of red-blooded Americans will guarantee success.

“The hysteria over the balloon,” Stein continues, “caused Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a scheduled trip to China. Relations have not really recovered since then.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


The emotional principle that routinely underlies and facilitates decision-making in the US, since taking the time to think critically risks compromising the chance to seize an opportunity.

Contextual note

The Biden administration clearly wanted the public to see the balloon as a clear threat to national security. By turning the story into a hysterical narrative, the media simply added spice to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s assessment. Given the gravity of the threat, he made it clear that a military response, which consisted of sending a fighter jet to destroy the object, would be the most appropriate move. “Today’s deliberate and lawful action” Austin stated, “demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”

Critics of Biden’s security policy may feel that this demonstrates not so much a concern for “safety and security” as a willingness to respond hysterically and precipitously to ambiguous situations. Biden himself summed up the affair in these words: “This silly balloon that was carrying two freight cars worth of the spying equipment was flying over the United States and it got shot down and everything changed in terms of talking to one another.”

The Wall Street Journal didn’t believe Chinese spying was the only reason for concern. Its headline, “Chinese Balloon Used American Tech to Spy on Americans,” proudly but also worriedly added insult to injury by pointing out that the spying was enabled by US technology that presumably shouldn’t have been allowed in the hands of the communist enemy.

The intelligence community concluded that the balloon neither collected nor transmitted intelligence to China. What purpose did it serve then? A lucid observer might conclude that it taught the Chinese and the rest of the world how easy it is to provoke hysteria in the US and how reliably politicians and the media fall into their role promoting it.

Historical note

Could Milley’s deflating of the threat reduce the taste for hysteria in US culture? It may simply reflect a shifting historical trend towards de-dramatizing the adversarial relationship with China. The tension has been building over the past six years to promote an atmosphere of a new Cold War. Paradoxically, even while a disastrous proxy war rages between NATO and Russia, clearly provoked over recent decades by the US and even strategized by the Rand Corporation in its report titled, “Extending Russia,” everyone in the political, military and media establishment views the big conflict of the 21st century as a Cold War with China, with a possible hot war to follow.

It was the Donald Trump administration that turned hysteria about China into a standard political talking point. During the 2020 election, Democrats worried that Trump and the Republicans had staked out their populist position that consisted not just of being anti-Chinese but also positively bellicose — if not in their specific intentions, then in their general attitude.

Vox described the drama between the two parties in the runup to the 2020 election. “China is poised to be the key foreign policy issue during the 2020 election, and the fight over which party — and which candidate — can best handle the country is in full swing. To President Donald Trump, it’s a matter of who’s ‘tougher’.” The Biden campaign made an effort to appear tough on China for the purposes of the vote. Contrary to the expectations of many Democrats, once elected, Biden maintained the severe tariffs that Trump had imposed that had become the emblem of a fraught relationship between the world’s two biggest economies. And the first serious talks between the two in Alaska in March, 2021 turned into an unexpected “heated exchange.”

The Biden administration has now fallen into a posture of China containment. It seeks to maintain the advantages to the economy of commerce with China. The Republican anti-China camp, best represented today by presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, wants a clean break with China. He aims to decouple the two economies. Establishment Democrats and Republicans prefer “de-risking.”

No one doubts that both nations benefit from their exchanges. The real problem lies in the perception of who will be dominant. Back in 2020, Vox noted that the tension was about “maintaining America’s position ahead of China in the global world order.”

Then there is the question of Taiwan. It is not only objectively ambiguous from a political, economic and military point of view. The existing relationship is officially framed as a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” US political culture has never appreciated or shown any aptitude for dealing with ambiguity. Americans prefer a black and white reading of historical situations. The Chinese have always been comfortable with their concept of yin and yang, in which the black segment contained white and the white, black and the two flowed into one another. The US prefers stark contrast. Unfortunately, it’s stark contrast that encourages and facilitates hysteria.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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