“Kill chicken, show monkey,” the Chinese doorman at the Tianjin Hyatt shrugged in reference to a geopolitical news story. This was in 1998 when Bob and I were working in northern China, living in a hotel, absorbing all the nuances of the Far East. I pictured emboldened macaques terrorizing a barnyard flock, the farmer stomping out ax in hand, grabbing a hen and wham, “Squawk!” Monkeys disperse, point taken.
After the great swearing in a couple of months ago, I diligently read news from all sources searching for patterns, hoping to get a handle on the unwieldy new normal. As the new administration gaffed and blustered its way into life, I saw an army of new hires elbowing each other for position amid the DC old guard. At center, a boyish man sharpie in hand, showing off his signature, ignoring intelligence in favor of TV’s talking heads, the trophy wife flown in for photo ops.
Shooting from the hip, the big fish fired off a travel ban. When a federal judge reversed the order it must have dawned on him that he was swimming in a big pond now, magnitudes bigger than his real estate, global-golf-course pond. I eased back into headline scanning mode, relieved to see checks and balances at work.
And then this week, Syria happened. I plunged back in, unable to resist this headline:
When China’s Dinner Partner Went to War – Evan Osnos 4/7/17
The first face-to-face encounter between the American President and his Chinese counterpart was expected to follow a predictable arc—the plutocrat and the Communist, the blowhard and the sphinx, the weary protectionist and the reluctant globalist. But, just after eight o’clock on Thursday, as the two leaders were polishing off their New York strip and Dover sole, Trump informed Xi that he’d launched cruise missiles against Syrian armed forces.
In the medium and long term, China now has a larger concern: if the emerging Trump doctrine permits him to attack at will—even between the appetizer and dessert—putting some pressure on North Korea might be Beijing’s more desirable option. But it must now also prepare for four years of an American President whose strategy and doctrine can change from one week to the next. In the field of national security, unpredictability is usually the favored tactic of small powers, not large ones.
As noted by Steve Coll in another irresistible story “Trump’s Confusing Strike on Syria”
In the modern Presidency, firing off missiles has become a rite of passage. …
Last Thursday, his seventy-seventh day in office, President Donald Trump pressed the cruise-missile button, sending fifty-nine Tomahawks to strike an airbase in Syria. …
The President’s decision was familiar for being both spontaneous and confusing. As has happened before, he was apparently inspired to act by what he saw on TV.
Well, you just can’t make this stuff up. Especially the part about eating dinner with the Chinese president, getting up to push the button on Syria, then sitting back down for dessert. It was a classic “Show Monkey” move if I ever heard of one whether he meant it that way or not. Quite likely, the timing was accidental (maybe he had the TV on in the corner of the room.) Probably he’d never heard of Kill Chicken, Show Monkey. Even more delicious, the air strike didn’t sit well with Syria’s ally, Russia.
The other day I was walking with a friend, talking each other’s ears off when a moment of silence between us revealed an unnaturally quiet world. No birds, crickets, planes, traffic, or frogs. Total silence. “Wow,” I said.
“I wonder if something has happened?”
“I know, right?! Well, I guess we don’t have to worry until we see the mushroom cloud.”
I suppose I shouldn’t make fun of a dire situation. I guess I should be afraid. But I don’t know how to fear something I have no control over. There’s no point in obsessing over stuff I can’t do anything about. So, for now at least, I’m reading the news, morbidly fascinated and keeping my eye on the horizon.