Monday, February 6, 2023
It's Monday, February 6th, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Conspicuous Attempt at Espionage: China's Balloon – Why Did the U.S. Government Handle This So Clumsily?
It would be very difficult to go back and to try to explain, say to yourself a week ago, why so much of the world, in general, and the United States in particular was so interested in and exercised by a balloon over the course of the last several days. But of course, the world was, and in particular, we were, we know that the story really begins in terms of the American consciousness last week when a citizen in Montana first noted the appearance of an odd object in the sky. It turns out to be very important by the way, and we'll return to this, that our government did not tell us about this balloon, our fellows citizens did. And eventually the government had to confirm it.
We're not talking about a small balloon. As a matter of fact, one of the first persons to cite the balloon, which was believed then to be crossing the Montana skies at about 60,000 feet of altitude, one of the first persons thought that he was seeing a rather strange impression of the moon until he looked just a little bit over from where this object was and actually saw the moon. He realized that there was something major going on. And by the time, of course, word began to spread, just understand the world we live in with the advent of smartphones and all the rest. Very quickly visual evidence turned into video evidence of what had to be a very, very large balloon that was situated at a very, very high altitude and was not explained.
Our government eventually made a very interesting explanation, and that is that it had been tracked earlier, especially near the Aleutian Islands, that it was a Chinese balloon. And not just any Chinese balloon, but a massive Chinese balloon that included a several ton payload including solar panels. There was no logical explanation, but that this entire payload and the entire enterprise of the balloon was some kind of exercise in espionage.
Now, fast forward to Saturday when the balloon crossed the American Atlantic coastline at the state of South Carolina, still at about 60,000 to 65,000 feet of altitude, which by the way is higher than commercial airline altitudes. And you had an American Air Force F-22 fighter jet strike the balloon with a missile. By the way, there was no obvious sign that the missile had basically exploded, but rather that the missile had pierced and destroyed the balloon. It began to fall. And there is plenty of visual evidence to the fact that the payload separated from the balloon and fell rather fast. What's also now taking place at high speed is an effort undertaken by American Armed Forces and intelligence personnel to try to gather all the debris and be able to find out exactly what this balloon was carrying, what it was up to, what it had done over the North American terrain, and the meaning of all of this.
Now, almost immediately China responded, and in a way that surprised some people. When the news broke earlier last week, Chinese officials said that this was not a government effort. It was not a defense project. It was instead something that was private and it was intimated that this is a meteorological or research vehicle, and that was what the mission was all about. But Americans weren't buying it. The American leadership wasn't buying it. American Armed Forces and intelligence agencies weren't buying it. Frankly, the rest of the world wasn't buying it.
But now that the balloon is down.... And by the way, the Chinese are protesting saying this was an overreaction, they're actually even saying that they might take further unspecified action. But what we're really looking at here is a very awkward, extremely clumsy, but nonetheless, telling exercise and international power playing in the exercise of espionage and intelligence gathering. And it is not innocuous. Eventually, we can at least hope that we will find out what this balloon was up to. But let's be honest, given the intelligence nature of such an endeavor, we're only going to be told what our government thinks it is safe to tell us not only about what was found, but how exactly what it is was determined. We will know what the government tells us when the government decides to tell us.
Now, just at the level of government secrecy, a couple of big things are going on here. Number one, you can't have it both ways. The Biden administration is insistent upon saying that it knew the balloon was there, it acted upon it, that the President had decided and given the military orders as far back as Wednesday to take it down, but that military authorities has said that it wouldn't be safe simply because of the massive tonnage of the payload falling from such a high altitude. It wouldn't be safe so long as the balloon was over the continental United States.
But let's just remind ourselves that when we had the first reports about this balloon, it was not over Manhattan, it was over Montana. But it also turns out, and there aren't many who are articulating this out loud, it also turns out that our government had to know about that balloon long before days before we knew. We now know that the balloon penetrated American airspace over Alaska, and in particular the Aleutian Islands. But we are talking about the United States of America. We're talking about a massive civil defense program. We are talking about a massive installation of intelligence listening devices, massive radar installations, satellite technologies. Let's just state the matter clearly. There is no way that American officials didn't know not only that the balloon was here, but that it was coming.
The big question is, knowing that this balloon was off course and headed over the United States and indeed over some of the most militarily important regions of the United States, including nuclear missile installations, why in the world did the Biden administration allow this ridiculous balloon to even get as far as Montana, not to mention traversing much of the North American continent on the way?
So just from a Christian worldview perspective, it's a good reminder to us that when we are talking about the intersection of any government and information, well, the bottom line is we eventually have the information that the government decides we should have. But there are exceptions. And the exceptions are: when there is an object in the sky as big as this massive balloon and it is visible by citizens on the ground, at that point, it becomes rather ridiculous for the government to try to argue that it isn't what it appears to be. It was what it appeared to be. And the United States government had no choice but to say, "Yes, this looks like a Chinese balloon and there's no other explanation for it." And then of course, the Chinese government admitted early on the Chinese origins and ownership of the balloon and it's payload.
You also had what can only be described as some very strange messaging coming from the Biden administration and the American government. According to some, they knew that such balloons had already penetrated American airspace during previous years. Well, who told us then? The answer is no one. When would the government have told us about this one? Well, presumably at no point. And if you hadn't had citizens who were able to see this balloon, and thus to get the word out, would our government have ever told us anything? And would there have been the political pressure for President Biden to supposedly order the balloon to be shot down last Wednesday? And did the American military say, "Let's wait until it is over American waters where it can be shot down safely"? We simply know what the government tells us. And I do not mean to spread some kind of paranoia or basic suspicion here. It's just a fact of life and it's good that Christians understand this. Governments tell us what governments have to tell us.
Now, this is going to turn out to be very important because different forms of government produce different governments that have a different history of how honestly they speak to their own people. Now, when you're looking at the United States of America, a constitutional republic, when you are looking at the constitutional protections that the American people are afforded, here's the amazing thing. The truth has a way of working out. Just ask American politicians even as powerful as the late US President Richard M. Nixon. Yes, no matter how much control you think you have over the government, information in Western societies leaks out.
Now, it doesn't always leak out immediately, but you do have a much greater accountability. Furthermore, the people who are in control of that information in a constitutional, in an elective democratic form of government, they are at least in theory accountable to the people. Not so in a totalitarian form of government, not so in the People's Republic of China under the absolute power of the Chinese Communist Party, not so where there is no constitutional provision for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, not so where the government claims not only a right to control a lot of information, but actually to own all the information all the time.
I'm reminded of a statement made by the late British Prime minister Winston Churchill when he said that the truth is so important that in a time of war, the truth must be protected by what he called a bodyguard of lies, which is to say if you tell your enemy everything you're about to do, guess what? Your enemy is going to win the war. But there does appear to be a bit of indecisiveness and certainly unanswered questions when it comes to the current American administration and its handling of this issue. Outside the public concern about this balloon, and frankly, political outrage over the fact that it was allowed to pass over so much of North America including sensitive military installations, would the Biden administration have acted in any way? Would it have taken the issue seriously? Did it take it seriously in the past? The reason we ask about the past is because officials in the administration told us this has happened before.
Officials in the administration and military leadership both pointed out that there appeared to be some huge questions about what exactly this balloon might gain that wouldn't have been available to the Chinese in terms of low orbit satellites and the photography that they could gain by those satellites. Interesting answers have come back by the way. One of them simply has to do with the fact that this balloon was believed to have been traveling at something like an air speed of eight to 10 miles an hour. In other words, very slowly, which means not only that it can see with very good and clear detail, but also, now get this, it can listen.
The obvious fact is that the Chinese wouldn't have run the risk of sending this balloon over North America unless there was a very clear military and espionage gain that the government there and the People's Republic of China believed was to its advantage. Now, it's also interesting to note that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was scheduled to arrive this past weekend in Beijing for the most high level talks between American and Chinese officials in a matter of years, at least four years. The Chinese were believed to be banking a lot on those conversations. But of course, those conversations didn't take place. There is no way in this context that any presidential administration in the United States could afford to send a United States Secretary of State with all the prestige that goes with that office to a country that had just offended us by sending an espionage mission over our own ground terrain.
Now, when you ask basic questions about this, some of the answers don't come very quickly, but that doesn't mean that the issue shouldn't be taken seriously. Sometimes human beings have even bungled into war.
Freedom Always Has Enemies: Why Democracy Will Always Face Massive Threats in a Fallen World
By almost any estimation, what the Chinese have done here is, well, described by some on the news media as clumsy, described by others as just plain stupid.
But nonetheless, it is also nefarious. It's also dangerous. It is sending us a signal. And that signal is, by the way, something that we should have known for a very long time. The United States of America faces several threats; democratic forms of government, most important, our experience as a constitutional republic, it is under threat. We have enemies. Freedom in the west faces enemies from figures as different as the autocracy of Vladimir Putin in Russia to the Chinese Communist Party, autocratic totalitarian rule in China.
When it comes to espionage, the Chinese are perfecting the art. And as you look at the rise of China as a world power, as you look at some of the military technologies they are deploying, as you look at some of the consumer products they are producing, much of it is made possible by what is described by both parties in the United States and by our government itself as a massive multi-decade effort to steal American secrets. And that includes, by the way, not just state secrets in the military, but business and technological secrets. And you are looking at what cannot now be denied, and that is an absolute determination on the part of the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership to conduct whatever ESP espionage it sees as to its advantage against the United States of America for political and military and economic advantage as well.
By the way, you have to ask a question, and this is a second large issue related to this story. You have to ask the question, "Did the Chinese do this at least in part because of the announcement made earlier last week about increased military cooperation between several countries in the Pacific region and the United States, most importantly, the Philippines?" Because that announcement made earlier last week is a particular significance. Remember that because of the Spanish American War and America's victory over Spain in the 19th century, the United States claimed the Philippine Islands as a national possession eventually becoming a territory. The Philippines became absolutely crucial, of course, during World War II.
Just think of General Douglas MacArthur's famous pledge, "I will return," meaning to the Philippines. And when he did return to the Philippines with massive American military force and eventually liberated the Philippines from the Japanese, and at the end of World War II, the United States had massive, simply massive military installations and in particular the United States Naval installation at Subic Bay. But the Philippines was granted its independence. And eventually there were those in the Philippines who made the argument that even as the United States of America recognized the independence of the Philippines as a nation, the United States still had inordinate influence. And one of the reasons it had inordinate influence was because of the massive military presence there in the Philippine Islands.
All that to say, in the era before the balloon, massive headlines were made as the United States and the Philippines reached an historic agreement that means the return of the United States military in a very big way to bases or at least to rented and borrowed facilities on an ongoing basis that will be in the Philippines. Forward deployed once again in the light, not in this case of Japanese aggression, that's the least of our concerns in the Pacific, but China's aggression.
The bottom line in all of this is just good for us to know that freedom always has enemies, that order always has enemies, that stability always has enemies. In a sinful world, war is threatening to break out here. And their spies? Well, they are just about everywhere. In a sinful world where world power and influence and massive economic and political issues are at stake, you can count on the fact that nefarious players will be doing their nefarious things.
The United States of America as an open society can't prevent all of this espionage from taking place. But at the very least, the American people would probably have every right to expect that the United States government is not going to let a massive intelligence-gathering balloon fly its way across North America. One of the big questions is, why wasn't it shot down before it reached the American heartland?
So as all of this comes to an end, at least for right now, the Americans are out trying to gather all the pieces of this balloon that can be found and what is estimated to be about 47 feet of water. That shouldn't be all that difficult for the American military. It will all be gathered together and intelligence analysts will do their analyzing and will be told what we are told when we are told it.
But here's something else to remember. Once the American people know that something like this has happened, well there is a righteous demand on the part of the American people for our government to tell us what it all means. And woe to the administration, whatever the party, that does not tell the American people what it demands to know in a situation of this undeniable reality. People sometimes say using a metaphor that people put up a trial balloon to see how this is going to go over. Well, just ask the Chinese how this has gone over.
Political Stunt or Strong Economic and Ideological Statement?: Congress Votes Down Socialism in all its Forms
But next for today in the battle of ideas, one of the biggest ideological conflicts of the 20th century was between socialism and capitalism, and in particular, between communism and Western democracy. But before we deal with communism, let's just remind ourselves of socialism because, well, here's headline news. The United States House of Representatives last Thursday passed a resolution by a vote of 328 to 86 that condemns socialism. Yes, in 2023, socialism was absolutely denounced by a bipartisan majority of the United States House of Representatives. And yes, that turns out in a very interesting way to be a big story.
So those on the left, including many Democratic leaders, are complaining that this was just a publicity stunt undertaken by the new Republican leadership in the house. But as you're thinking about something as serious as socialism, let's just say if this was some kind of political stunt, I think it was a pretty important one. And nonetheless, it made the point. When the issue about a censure and a condemnation of socialism hit the floor of the House of Representatives, well, a majority of the Democrats voting on the question had to vote with the Republicans clearly, publicly to repudiate socialism.
So the Republicans and the majority voted for it, so did 109 Democrats. Only 86 Democrats voted against it and 14 Democratic members of the House summoning all of their courage voted present. The resolution that was adopted so overwhelmingly in the House States, "Congress denounces socialism in all its forms and opposes the implementation of socialist policies in the United States of America." The resolution mentions socialist experiments, lamentably including those of Cambodia, China, Cuba, North Korea, and the former USSR or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And it also condemned socialist dictators and their tyranny, including Fidel Castro, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Kim Jong-un, and Mao Zedong.
Until days ago, Representative Steny Hoyer was in the Democratic leadership in the house, and he was not very pleased with this particular vote. He was among those who insinuated it's a political stunt. And he lamented what he called "the failure today to consider a resolution which would reflect the overwhelming consensus in this House that capitalism, not socialism, has proven to be the very best economic system." In other words, a significant step back from a condemnation outright of socialism. But the thing to note here is that a clear majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives couldn't afford to appear to be soft on socialism, and so they voted for the resolution. Again, 109.
Now, as we think about the clash of ideas, ideologies, and political systems, even worldviews, it's hard to imagine a more direct collision than that between capitalism and a free market on the one hand and socialism, and that requires confiscatory and coercive control of the entire economy on the other hand. It's hard to imagine any greater conflict than that between communism and Western constitutionalism inside the 20th century. But it's also fair to say that not all socialists are communists.
This particular resolution adopted by the House makes very clear that what socialism does require is a consolidation of power. And I'll go further and say it also requires a confiscation of property. Because the very definition of socialism means you have citizen common control of the entire means of economic production. And eventually that requires you have a confiscation of that kind of economic power, of say, factories and industries and banks and all the rest, private properties a matter of fact, because what socialism means even first of all is the social ownership of everything.
Now, there have been socialist experiments that haven't gone so far is to say you can't own your house, but there are no socialist experiments that do not claim a coercive power confiscating private ownership in order to put it in the hands of the people it is said. But here's the problem, and that's what's behind this resolution. You are talking about a denial of freedom. You are talking about the confiscation of private property in the name of the people. You are talking about, in the name of the people, someone running these industries, someone controlling the finance, someone in control of the economy. And in the name of the people, well, that's how we got most of the horrors of the 20th century. As you look at communism, you are looking at the claim that true socialism can only be advanced when there is not only coercion and confiscation from private hands of the means of production, but government control of the entire economy.
Now, there are all kinds of hybrid systems, democratic socialism as compared to authoritarian or totalitarian socialism, but the reality is you can't have socialism without state control. That is the big lesson of the 20th century. You may have socialists who say this does not require state control, but if there is no state, there is no organized representation supposedly of the people to claim ownership of the means of production and thus to own and direct the entire economy. And that is one of the great lessons of the 20th century. In the name of the people, what socialism produces is a massive coercive state.
Now, keep in mind that we have some members who caucus with the Democrats in both the Senate and the House who identify themselves as democratic socialists, the most famous of them being Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Now, is he a socialist? Well, he is not a socialist like Vladimir Lenin was, but he is a socialist who would empower the state to take control of vast areas of the American economy. And by the way, that doesn't work because if you're going to control areas of the economy or sectors of the economy, they're all engaged in interacting with everything else. And so eventually you have to either control by confiscation or by overt government regulation, basically the entirety of the economy. And by the way, not only does that deny freedom, it doesn't work.
So was that vote basically a kind of statement being made by the Republican leadership in the House? Well, yes it was, but sometimes those statements are actually quite important and especially important when dealing with something as serious as socialism. And if nothing else, it is extremely important that a vast bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives voted to condemn socialism and to make very clear that the United States and our economy, and you could also say there our government is not inclined to a socialist system but rather sees itself as the very clear and superior alternative to, even contradiction to, socialism.
But of course, as you think about this, as we come to the conclusion of today's addition of The Briefing, just remember that even though the bipartisan consensus was massive, you could count basically all the Republicans, and 109 Democrats, you did have 86 Democrats vote against the resolution, and you also had 14 members vote merely present.
Now, let's be clear, intellectual honesty means that it is not fair to say that they are socialists because the vast majority of them by classic definition certainly are not. But what is undeniable is that they did not vote to condemn socialism. In the battle of ideas, that will turn out to be important.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.