U.S. government may seem MIA on balloons, toxic trainwreck

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Ohio National Guard Civil Support Team members prepare to assess hazards in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 7. Photo courtesy of Ohio National Guard/Twitter
Ohio National Guard Civil Support Team members prepare to assess hazards in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 7. Photo courtesy of Ohio National Guard/Twitter

Did the downing of four balloons and the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that contaminated a small Ohio town with highly toxic materials have anything in common?

Many would argue yes: a U.S. government not only missing in action but one that was unready, disorganized and unable to mount a credible and compelling response.


Given the size of the U.S. defense budget, the failure in other natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the money spent in preparation for such events, some ask how could this happen?

Further, the White House was slow in informing the public on both situations. President Joe Biden's refusal to take any questions on the balloons after his briefing to the nation did not calm public anxieties over China's spying. Yet there is another side to this story and one that has been largely missed.

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Many factors explain why administrations are prone to reacting poorly in keeping with public expectations. First is surprise. In all the war games played and contingency plans written, not every scenario or possibility can be covered. Imagine being in the Oval Office and being told a Chinese balloon was flying over Montana.


Second is the absence of knowledge. Few, if any, people in the government seem to have been aware of China's lighter-than-air intelligence program. While specific rules of engagement apply to unauthorized aircraft entering U.S. airspace, balloons were not covered.

Third, derailments are fairly common. And the convoluted nature of often contradictory laws, rules and regulations can limit a coherent response. Apparently, because Norfolk-Southern Railroad agreed to cover all damages, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had no jurisdiction. Overlapping federal, state and local responsibilities likewise were in conflict.

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Fourth, presidents have full schedules. White House bandwidth to deal with multiple crises of any nature is not unlimited. Biden was dealing with a trip to Poland and a highly secret stopover in Ukraine; a battle royale with Republicans over the budget and debt ceiling; and of course trying to improve relations with China. None is an excuse. But it is a reality.

That said, in today's hyper-politically charged world, even a small slip can have huge political consequence. Donald Trump was impeached for "asking a small favor" from Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky. That said, the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, may not have gotten the immediate attention of the White House. It should have.


Unfortunately, no immediate fix for dealing with the political consequences of unexpected or even what may seem as "small" problems exists. In my book The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD, I argue that disruption should become one foundation for protecting the nation in terms of preventing, containing and limiting damage when one struck. The railway fire and leak were cases in point. More war games and tabletop exercises on the unexpected and so-called "black swan" events are also needed.

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Yet, in such a polarized environment, suppose that today's politicized world existed on Dec. 7, 1941. The nation then was bitterly divided over the war in Europe. That was highly understandable, especially after the bloodletting of World War I. Or suppose a Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11-like crisis erupted today.

The partisan response to the balloon incidents was harsh. Imagine what a major catastrophe would provoke. The party out of power would be merciless in attacking the party in power for allowing this to happen. Unlike Pearl Harbor, when crisis brought a divided nation together, that no longer is the case.

The COVID-19 pandemic, in which more Americans died than were killed in every battle the nation fought since 1775, divided the nation, in some cases bitterly. With a country that is split 50/50 virtually on every issue, this condition will not change, no matter how well or how badly any event is handled. Yes, the White House should have been more forthcoming on the balloons. And yes, even if the federal government had few responsibilities for the derailment, perceptions matter.


One conclusion is obvious. The smallest political cut can become septic and infected. It is easy to be critical. But offering responsible criticism, especially when making political points, is difficult. Truth and objectivity matter less, if at all.

Yet, looking at all the competing demands on any president, it is almost certain that no White House can keep up. Hence, do not be surprised, regardless of which party is in charge, when the White House is MIA in some future event.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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