Daniel Larison objects to my attempt to narrow the meaning of “hawk”:

If the hawk label doesn’t refer in general to those advocating for aggressive and militarized policies, I’m not sure what it could mean. When I refer to Syria hawks, I mean those people calling for increased arms supplies to the opposition or military action against the Syrian government. Syria hawks obviously don’t include all hawks, and they may not even include all neoconservatives, but as a shorthand I don’t know how else we would describe them. The most accurate alternative I can think of is interventionist, but I don’t see why hawk shouldn’t be used to describe supporters of aggressive policies in Syria, Iran, or anywhere else.

I guess I think there’s some value in distinguishing people who, when he sees an enemy, believes he must be crushed less he wreak terrible harm upon us, and the kind of plumed-helmeted Mrs. Jellyby eager to interpose American might between the world’s victims and their victimizers, wherever they may be, or the kind of fellow who simply can’t stand the thought that anything is happening anywhere without his being in charge of the situation. All are frequently styled hawks, I admit, but I think distinguishing between them terminologically would be useful if it could be accomplished.

The “hawk/dove” dichotomy, in my mind, should properly refer to threats and one’s preferred response. The hawk sees a given threat as large and growing, and is prepared to take strenuous measures, including the use of violence, to meet the threat. That can be literal, if we’re talking about hawks in a foreign policy context, or figurative, if we’re talking about “deficit hawks” or “drug war hawks” or what-have-you. Doves either don’t see the threat as large or growing or are unprepared to take strenuous measures, or to contemplate violence, to meet the threat.

The primary policy debate about Iran, for example, makes sense to frame in terms of hawks and doves. The hawk would argue that military action against Iran will likely prove – or has already proved – necessary to prevent the unacceptable threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and that we must prepare for such action now so that we are not surprised by events. The dove would disagree, either arguing that the evidence of an Iranian nuclear program is poor, or that a nuclear-armed Iran, while undesirable, is tolerable, or that military action would prove counter-productive as a response, or that there is a real possibility of peaceful resolution of our differences. Whatever. Personally, I’m something of an Iran dove, but I recognize the hawk/dove divide as the appropriate framing for the discussion, and I understand the hawk’s arguments in their own terms.

But with Syria, it is much less clear what a “hawk” means, in my understanding of the word, because it is far from clear what the threat is, or whether, indeed, there is an enemy. The chief argument on the part of advocates for Syrian intervention is that if we don’t do something, events will take a course beyond our control. Perhaps Assad will win; perhaps the rebels will win, but will resent us for not helping them; perhaps the war will drag on and spread to neighboring countries; perhaps Syria will fall apart entirely with parts of the country being taken over by terrorists; and whatever happens, thousands, even tens of thousands more people will die. War is proposed not to counter a specific threat, but to assert control over a chaotic situation. The enemy is the unknown itself.

I don’t want to call people making arguments like these “hawks” because I think that grants an argument that hasn’t properly been made: that we are debating about how serious to take and how seriously to respond to a threat. We aren’t debating about that yet, because a coherent picture of an adversary posing a threat has not yet been drawn by the advocates of military action. Because they are not really proposing action to meet a threat – they are proposing action so as to be involved.

To make the point more clearly: you could make an entirely plausible case, on the basis of national interest, for siding with Assad, sending him arms, aiding him in his battle against al-Qaeda-supported terrorist rebels. Unlike with Iran, there is no preexisting enmity established between the United States and Syria. Syria was our ally in 1991 in the Gulf War against Iraq. And Assad, while assuredly a devil, is at least the devil we know; the rebels, meanwhile, include elements very similar to the sorts of groups we were fighting during the worst days of the Iraq War.

So: if we hypothesize another domestic faction advocating entering the Syrian civil war on Assad’s side, or at least against the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting him, would we also call that group “Syria hawks,” even though they (in this scenario) advocate the opposite course of action from the “Syria hawks” who favor toppling Assad?

I suspect, in fact, that we would. Indeed, I could imagine some of the same people currently advocating war against Assad turning around and advocating a prolonged military involvement to defeat some of his current enemies. Which is precisely the problem I have with the terminology of “hawk” applied to these situations.

Here’s another analogy: it would be very strange to see an “inflation hawk” who advocated a much tighter monetary policy than that favored by the Fed turn around and quickly become a “deflation hawk” advocating a much looser monetary policy than that favored by the Fed. We would expect, at a minimum, to see some acknowledgment of a change of mind, and that her prior view was proved incorrect by events – she would not have advocated such tight money then had she known we were about to be thrown into deflation. But it would not be weird at all to see a self-styled hawk in international affairs advocate military action on very nearly all sides of a question simultaneously. That’s an indication of decidedly confused thinking. The term “hawk” masks that confusion with a facade of resolution and seriousness.

The hawk, like the dove, is a noble bird. There is a place, in any discussion, for the person who takes the grimmest view of potential threats, just as there is a place for the person who takes the most sanguine view. For that matter, there is a place for the person who is particularly concerned about this threat, but not terribly concerned about that threat – the climate hawk who’s also a deficit dove, the China hawk who’s also an Iran dove, etc.

We do need a term for people who are eager to fight without being very clear on whom they want to fight or why. I just don’t want that term to be “hawk.”

Perhaps we should call them grackles.