China, Iran, and Santa

by Tom Rogan
As our rivals on the world stage explore space, we argue over Santa Claus’s color.

While we argued over Santa Claus’s color (white, black, or multicolored?), China roved across the moon. Iran sent a monkey into orbit and returned him safely to earth.

America, we have a problem.

To be sure, it’s easy to look and laugh, “You’re 50 years behind us.” Easy, but ill judged. Such a casual understanding neglects the defining truth here. Ultimately, the Santa–space dichotomy isn’t about technological power, it’s about national purpose. We need to grasp that fact. Fast.

Consider what these space missions actually mean for the Chinese and the Iranians.

It’s tempting to look at space monkey “Fargam” and see only “cuteness.” For Americans who see space exploration in the imagery of decades of manned missions, Fargam doesn’t appear all that serious. But Fargam is far more than a PR stuntmonkey. He’s a traveling messenger for the Iranian revolution — “there are no limits to our aspiration.” And in this vein of “aspiration,” Fargam carries a broader scientific purpose. By riding a rocket-launched capsule into space and then achieving a controlled reentry, Fargam has helped advance Iran’s weaponized-missile program. According to the Defense Department, Iranian progress with two-stage missile systems suggests that Iran may have the capability to attack the U.S. mainland by 2015. Alongside Iranian delaying tactics over the implementation of the Geneva “six months” deal, Fargam suddenly seems a little less friendly.

But still we laugh.

China’s moon landing also carries a deeper message. While the Chinese government claims that “Jade Rabbit” is a pure servant of exploration, this isn’t about the benefit of humanity. Consider some recent evidence on earth.

Over the past few weeks, China has injected new tensions into the East China Sea. Whether in attempting to usurp new territory or in physical threats to U.S. Navy vessels, the Chinese have made clear that they intend to reshape the geostrategic balance of the Pacific. Even then, China’s foreign-policy evolution isn’t a local pursuit; it’s in pursuit of a truly global agenda. From the Americas to Africa to the Middle East, the Politburo Standing Committee is determined to dominate international affairs. Thus arrives the true story of Jade Rabbit — as a metaphor in a broader strategic gambit. The Chinese aren’t interested in matching American power. They seek to surpass it.

And we obsess about Santa Claus.

Don’t get me wrong, I support Santa Claus’s importance to America. But I also know that Santa Claus is far less important to America than a great many other issues. Protected by our military and confident of our place as the world’s sole superpower, we’ve allowed ourselves to become detached from reality. In some sense, our retrenchment is understandable. Taken at a glimpse, the world is just too complex, too difficult, too depressing.

Yet, though our emotions are understandable, the price of our ignoring what’s happening around us is real. Where the Iranians see an arc of nuclear-armed theocracies reaching from Tehran to the Mediterranean, we see a smiling monkey. While China sees global supremacy built on authoritarianism, endemic corruption, and callous statism, we cling to Apollo 11. But we’re deluding ourselves. We forget that Neil Armstrong has departed us. Armstrong can’t create for us the new jobs of the 21st century, nor can he resolve our debt crisis or preserve global security. History can and should inspire us, but alone it cannot propel us toward our future well-being. Entertaining that myth, we’re encouraging others to challenge our ideals and our aspirations. We’re burying our heads in the sand and slowly suffocating.

In this drift of purpose, we now risk becoming the very thing we watch: a Santa Claus nation. A nation addicted to a make-believe reality, where our future is a daily dose of irreverent banter.

We need to wake up.

Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to TheWeek.com and the Guardian.

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