China, Balloons, and Spying
On February 4, the US military shot down a Chinese balloon they claim was a surveillance balloon spying on US territory. The unprecedented "kinetic action against an airborne object . . . within United States or American airspace" was followed by three more objects being shot down by the US and Canada over their airspace.
The conflict that followed derailed potential and necessary US-China diplomacy. But the US knows three crucial things. The surveillance balloon was not intentionally sent over US airspace, the next three objects were not even spying and, even if they had been spying, China would only be doing what the US does every day. There was never a need for the conflict.
Biden has admitted that the three later objects that were shot down "were most likely research balloons, not spy craft." The US "intelligence community’s assessment is that the three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific studies."
As for the balloon the US still believes was a spy balloon, they knew all along that China had not deliberately sent it over US airspace. Far from being taken by surprise, as they portrayed, "U.S. military and intelligence agencies had been tracking it for nearly a week, watching as it lifted off from its home base on Hainan Island near China’s south coast."
And they knew the intended destination was never the US. US officials "are now examining the possibility that China didn’t intend to penetrate the American heartland with their airborne surveillance device." The US monitored the flight path that was taking it to Guam when "strong winds . . . appear to have pushed the balloon south into the continental United States."
The US initiated a potentially dangerous conflict with a country for doing something they knew the country wasn’t doing.
And even if China did send a spy balloon over the US, the US knows that they do that to China every day. Three times a day actually. Retired Ambassador Chas Freeman, who accompanied Nixon to China in 1972, told me that the US “mount[s] about three reconnaissance missions a day by air or sea along China’s borders, staying just outside the 12-mile limit but alarming the Chinese, who routinely intercept our flights and protest our perceived provocations.”
The US has, not balloons, but satellites that spy on China. NBC’s Robert Windrem calls Washington’s “appetite for China’s secrets” “insatiable" and says that “spying on the People’s Republic of China has been one of the National Security Agency’s top priorities since it was established in 1952.”
But they have balloons too. On February 13, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said “that the US had flown high-altitude balloons through its airspace more than 10 times since the start of 2022.” He went on to say that “US balloons regularly flew through other countries’ airspace without permission.”
And in February 2022, Politico revealed that the Pentagon is working on “high-altitude inflatables” that would fly “at between 60,000 and 90,000 feet [and] would be added to the Pentagon’s extensive surveillance network. . . .” The Pentagon, which has spent millions on the project, hopes the balloons “may help track and deter hypersonic weapons being developed by China and Russia.”
Cuba and Sponsoring Terrorism
On October 3, 2022, Colombian President Gustavo Petro asked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of international terrorism. At a press conference the same day, Blinken defended the Cuban listing, insisting that "When it comes to Cuba and when it comes to the state sponsor of terrorism designation, we have clear laws, clear criteria, clear requirements." Petro disagreed, responding that "what has happened with Cuba is an injustice."
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agrees. In December, he said that the world must "unite and defend the independence and sovereignty of Cuba, and never, ever treat it as a ‘terrorist’ country, or put its profoundly humane people and government on a blacklist of supposed ‘terrorists’."
The US agrees. Though the Biden administration has insisted on keeping Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, they know that Cuba is not a sponsor of terrorism.
Latin American resistance to America’s strangling Cuba policy was, William LeoGrande, Professor of Government at American University and a specialist in US foreign policy toward Latin America, told me, "preventing Washington from engaging Latin American cooperation on a range of other issues." Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said US policy on Cuba had become "an albatross" around the neck of the US, crippling their policy in the hemisphere.
So, President Obama ordered a review of the designation. In an act of extreme historical understatement, he told Congress that "the government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period" and "has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future." After the State Department review, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that any remaining "concerns and disagreements" with Cuba "fall outside the criteria for designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism." The State Department issued an "assessment that Cuba meets the criteria established by Congress for rescission." The US intelligence community came to the same decision.
In May 2015, Obama removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry announced that "The government of Cuba recognizes the just decision made by the President of the United States to remove Cuba" from the list, adding that "it never deserved to belong" on the list in the first place.
Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 in an act of hypocrisy and exceptionalism. President Reagan locked Cuba in the list for arming revolutionary left wing movements in Latin America. Reagan was arming their right wing opponents. Reagan declared that supporting those groups was "self-defense" and waged secret proxy wars and armed and supported counter-revolutionary forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua. LeoGrande has said that the US backed counterrevolutionary forces "guilty of far worse terrorist attacks against civilians" than the Cuban backed revolutionary forces.
Nonetheless, on January 11, 2021, as it was walking out the White House door, the Trump administration thrust Cuba back onto the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Biden promised, while campaigning for the presidency, that he would "promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights." Instead, two months after Trump put Cuba back on the list, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced that a "Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities."
Cuba remains on the state sponsor of terrorism list though the US knows Cuba is not a state sponsor of terrorism. The Obama-Biden administration liberated them from the list, knowing that "the government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism." The Biden administration locked them back in the list, knowing the same.
Iran and Nuclear Bombs
The pattern is the same with Iran. The Obama-Biden administration signs the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran, paving the way to end the conflict, the Trump administration illegally pulls out of the deal, renewing the conflict, and Biden continues Trump’s failed policies instead of returning to Obama’s promising policies.
The Biden administration knows that the Trump policy they are keeping alive is a mistake. Blinken called the Trump administration’s “decision to pull out of the agreement” a “disastrous mistake.” Biden, while campaigning, said that Trump “recklessly tossed away a policy that was working to keep America safe and replaced it with one that has worsened the threat.” He promised to “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy.” He hasn’t.
Instead, the State Department has said that the negotiations with Iran are “not our focus right now.” Robert Malley, the top US diplomat for negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran said that "It is not on our agenda. . . . we are not going to waste our time on it."
So, Iran continues to be the recipient of US sanctions, threats, assassinations and sabotage: all while the US knows Iran is not building a nuclear bomb.
The 2007 and 2011 US National Intelligence Estimates both concluded with "high confidence" that Iran was not building a bomb. But you don’t have to go back that far to find US admissions that they are continuing the conflict with Iran for doing things they know Iran is not doing.
The 2022 US Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review makes the stunning admission that Iran is not building a nuclear weapon nor has it even made a decision to pursue a nuclear weapon. The Nuclear Posture Review makes that admission, not once, but twice, and it is repeated again in the National Defense Strategy in which it is included.
The Nuclear Posture Review says that “Iran does not currently pose a nuclear threat but continues to develop capabilities that would enable it to produce a nuclear weapon should it make the decision to do so.” It then lays out the truth about Iran in the greatest clarity: “Iran does not today possess a nuclear weapon and we currently believe it is not pursuing one.”
That was true four months ago, when the Nuclear Posture Review was released, and it remains true today. On February 25, CIA Director William Burns said that "[t]o the best of our knowledge, we don’t believe that the supreme leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program."
As in its Cuba policy, the US continues to engage in conflict with Iran for doing something the US knows Iran is not doing. In the case of Iran, that escalating, self-defeating policy is potentially very dangerous.
In all three cases – China, Cuba and Iran – the US has engaged in hostile, and sometimes dangerous, conflict with countries for doing what the US knew all along they weren’t doing.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.