There are some elements of diplomacy and international relations that have their place in the toolbox but always struck me as odd. One of these is the tendency to taunt opponents in a Monty Pythonesque way by sending ships in their general direction. What’s always interesting is the commentary that goes along with the announcement. One side expresses their displeasure over some point of contention and says that certain naval forces have been repositioned in response. The other side acts as if this is a giant threatening provocation from which they will not be intimidated. The general public suffers from a momentary fear that dangerous escalation is around the corner. And then nothing happens and we all move on.

The fact that nothing ever happens is part of the point and the utility of the practice. It’s a way to save face and act like you’re doing something without having to truly risk getting anyone killed. Face-saving gestures are very important, even in the United States where people are less obsessed with appearances than in some other cultures.

This diplomatic dance isn’t really working with North Korea, though. On their end, they don’t have the kind of navy that can intimidate so they can’t play the game the same way that the Russians or Chinese do. As a result, they issue the wrong kind of threats. Instead of promising to give us a good ass-whupping, they say effectively that they will kill everyone on American soil, down to the lizards.

The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, did not mince its words.

“In the case of our super-mighty preemptive strike being launched, it will completely and immediately wipe out not only U.S. imperialists’ invasion forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas but the U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes,” it said.

Threats like these aren’t just over the top. They actually justify preemptive action to reduce North Korea to ashes before they can do what they’ve promised to us and our allies.

If I can go a little diversion here for a moment, consider the literal case for war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

During the buildup to the war in Iraq, the United States repeatedly accused Iraq of using mobile laboratories to produce banned weapons. A U.S.-led force invaded Iraq March 20 after accusing Iraq of violating U.N. resolutions requiring it to give up chemical and biological weapons, long-range missiles and efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

At root, the surface case for war with Saddam was that he threatened us in a vague but still unacceptable way by his maintenance of chemical and biological weapons and his desire to build a nuclear weapon. This was enough to rally the American establishment and half its people behind a policy of forcible regime change.

It would be comparatively easy to make a case for war with North Korea given the fact they actually have nuclear weapons and are threatening to fire them at our country in a preemptive way without warning. In fact, I can’t think of a more open and shut provocation. Ordinarily, a nation that wants to avoid war with our country would work to move American public opinion in the opposite direction.

Of course, North Korea relies on a unique form of deterrence. They can destroy the capital of South Korea at a moment’s notice and we can’t do a damn thing to stop them. This gives them a halo of protection, but they’re at the point now where they’re abusing the privilege of being able to act with impunity.

On our side, we’re doing it wrong because when you announce that you’re sending ships in your enemy’s general direction, you need to make sure that they aren’t sailing in the opposite direction.

There has been some confusion over the whereabouts of a U.S. aircraft carrier group after Trump said last week he had sent an “armada” as a warning to North Korea, even as the ships were still far from Korean waters.

The U.S. military’s Pacific Command explained that the USS Carl Vinson strike group first had to complete a shorter-than-planned period of training with Australia. It was now heading for the Western Pacific as ordered, it said.

China’s influential Global Times newspaper, which is published by the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official paper, wondered whether the misdirection was deliberate.

“The truth seems to be that the U.S. military and president jointly created fake news and it is without doubt a rare scandal in U.S. history, which will be bound to cripple Trump’s and U.S. dignity,” it said.

The Chinese comments don’t make a lot of sense, but their taunting comes through clearly enough. They know how the naval repositioning game is supposed to be played and they know that Trump sank his own battleship with his blundering announcement.

So, we have two nuclear armed countries being run by incompetent loons who don’t understand the basics of diplomacy, which means they are terrible at avoiding war.

There are people in this country with the power to clean house on our end of this dangerous situation. Many of them are Republican lawmakers. If partisanship and narrow fears of personal career preservation didn’t blind them to the far higher demand of species preservation, they’d already be moving to replace our president.

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