WASHINGTON — Those on the lookout for hypocrisy in US foreign policy have found ample material in the divergent approaches to today's twin foreign policy crises, Iraq and North Korea. The administration has opted for a noncoercive approach to North Korea's nuclear adventurism at the very time it marshals a strike force to halt a far less advanced program in Iraq. For many skeptics this is further proof that US policy is either incoherent or duplicitous. They should take a second look.
It is reasonable to ask why overwhelming force is the right approach for one point of the "axis of evil" while another gets gentle diplomacy. That question reflects the simple but powerful understanding that consistency matters. It is a fundamental principle of most justice systems that "like cases be treated alike."
Many abroad and some in the US have suggested that the only difference between North Korea and Iraq is petroleum or presidential pique or proximity to Israel - pick your own theory. For those subscribing to these views, the rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction is a mere smokescreen for America's real ambitions. If what the administration really cared about were the weapons, this interpretation implies, the US would treat Iraq and North Korea identically.
Others, including Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, have reached a different conclusion. On the Senate floor, Mr. Byrd recently asked, "What is the message we convey to the world if we are eager to apply a doctrine of preemption on those countries with limited ability to defend or counterattack, and yet waffle over a preemptive response to dangerous regimes with the firepower to hit back?" Formulated this way, the inconsistent approaches reveal a bullying superpower, picking on the weak while kowtowing to the strong.
But there is an interpretation that gives the administration's approach a moral coherence that too many critics either miss or deliberately ignore.
Theologians and ethicists have often analyzed the morality of possible conflicts through the "just war theory." As a starting point, the theory requires that a conflict have a just cause. Most Americans, though certainly not all, will agree that preventing murderous and unpredictable regimes like those in Iraq and North Korea from acquiring weapons of mass destruction constitutes a possible just cause for the use of force. The theory doesn't stop there. Crucially, it requires that the expected consequences of a conflict not outweigh the good sought. This proportionality requirement is the basis for a clear distinction between Iraq and North Korea. Byrd correctly identified the salient difference between the situations: the military might of our potential adversaries. North Korea likely already has atomic weapons while Iraq is many months away from producing its own. North Korea has a powerful army poised to hurl itself at the south, while Iraq's conventional forces are weaker than a decade ago.
Put bluntly, ridding a rogue state of destructive weapons may be worth 1,000 or even 10,000 lives, but not 100,000. Such a calculus might appear crude, but it is applied constantly. The US stepped in forcefully to stop massacres of an ethnic minority in Bosnia in large part because we could defeat the Bosnian Serb military at a low cost to our military and to innocent civilians. Similar action to stop Chinese or Russian human rights violations would be unthinkable because of the enormous costs such a conflict would entail.
A calculation of the consequences is a morally credible basis for the apparent inconsistency between today's crises that has nothing to do with the dark motives that critics - particularly abroad - so readily ascribe to US foreign policy. The policy - that rogue states should not acquire weapons of mass destruction - remains firm. But the likely consequences of military action demand that the administration apply the principle differently.
No one would claim that this or any administration decides when to use force based on an explicit application of the just war theory. But neither should it be assumed that its principles are entirely absent from deliberations. Those skeptical of the current US approach too often leap directly from a perception of inconsistency to an accusation of unprincipled policy.
By throwing up their hands so quickly, some of the administration's opponents slide from serious criticism into irresponsible escapism.
• David L. Bosco is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. Between 1996 and 1998 he worked in and reported from Bosnia.