On the problem of rogue states

Within the last two two weeks, Chinese military hackers reportedly tried to break into secure servers run by the German and U.S. governments. German and U.S. officials have reportedly both complained – for reasons spelled out in this story by David Lague: How can they trust Chinese leaders' assurances of non-threatening intent if they can't be sure the People's Liberation Army sees things the same way? The PLA's successful test of an anti-satellite weapon early this year awakened the same fears.

Yes, having some degree of certainty, of reasonable boundaries, about what a nation might and might not do is an important element of international stability. With that point in mind, think of this: No one on earth can be sure that the U.S. government will not launch an aerial strike or a land invasion of Iran in the next 16 months.

We can be sure that such a strike would a disaster -- for America. (Reasons laid out in the Atlantic in 2004, 2006, and 2007.) We can speculate that many members of the military are so aware that it would be a disaster that they might at least think about the unthinkable: resigning or in some other way resisting the command. We can wonder why the Congress, now trapped by the logic of "we're there now, so we can't just cut and run" about Iraq is not taking clearer steps to rule out an attack on Iran while they still can.

But we can't be sure that it won't happen. No one can. The structure of American government leaves this power in a President's hands -- or at least the current president so believes, and the Congress has not legislated otherwise.

So it is fine to tsk-tsk the Chinese about the doubts that the PLA's recent behavior is raising in others' minds. But let's also think about the doubts the United States is creating around the world -- and why Europeans, especially, have started talking about a "systems failure" in America: that it has no good way of being sure that its enormous power will not be used recklessly, to the detriment of itself and everyone else.

Practical point: Congress, get cracking! Pre-emptively vote that no funds may be used this way. Show the Chinese, among others, how democracy can work.