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Why Hawkish Foreign Policy Shouldn’t Be Called “Muscular”

Peter Beinart criticizes [1] the phrase “muscular foreign policy” in news reporting. He proposes that journalists use a more accurate term, such as warlike:

Critics might object that “warlike” sounds negative. But it only sounds negative because we instinctively resist calling on our government to kill people. Thus, government officials concoct euphemisms—“military intervention,” “air campaign,” “collateral damage,” “muscular engagement”—that allow Americans to advocate large-scale killing without experiencing the discomfort that plain language would cause. People in power have always done that, and probably always will. But journalists should not help them.

Hawks will predictably complain about this description in the same way that they used to complain about being called pro-war on account of their vocal, consistent support for most or all foreign wars. That is an evasion, and it should be recognized as such. Hawks would like to get the credit for being “tough” or “strong” in the face of foreign threats, but they don’t want to own the deadly and sometimes disastrous consequences of their preferred policies. They want to be known for favoring U.S. “leadership,” but don’t want to account for the costs when that “leadership” plunges the country into unnecessary conflicts or wrecks entire countries because of reckless action. Claiming to favor a “muscular” foreign policy allows them to emphasize their preference for “strength” without having to acknowledge their related belief in the frequent use of that strength to pummel and attack others. Describing their views in this way helps to reinforce the already very strong bias in our foreign policy debates in favor of action and in favor of the use of force in foreign conflicts.

There are a few other words that serve the same function as “muscular” that should always be viewed with similar skepticism. One of the hawks’ favorite words is “robust,” which is usually code for aggressive or confrontational. Another is “forward-leaning,” which denotes constant meddling in the affairs of other countries. Like “muscular,” they obscure the content of the hawkish policies in question. These are words that all refer to potentially dangerous and destructive ways to engage with the rest of the world, but they conceal what is actually being demanded.

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16 Comments To "Why Hawkish Foreign Policy Shouldn’t Be Called “Muscular”"

#1 Comment By Crprod On February 25, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

Perhaps the correct phrase to describe our recent foreign policy is “muscle bound”. Before weight training in many sports really got going, coaches would warn their players about excessive muscularity causing loss of speed, quickness, and flexibility. In 2007, there was a report in PLOS Genetics on a mutation in myostatin, the natural inhibitor of muscle development, in whippets. Whippets with one copy of the myostatin gene inactivated were faster than the normal whippets. Whippets with both copies of the myostatin gene inactivated were more muscular still, but they ran more slowly. This seems to be an appropriate metaphor for recent American foreign policy and our tendency to act first and think later.

#2 Comment By Weissfeder On February 25, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

Hawks would like to get the credit for being “tough” or “strong” in the face of foreign threats, but they don’t want to own the deadly and sometimes disastrous consequences of their preferred policies.

… and with rare exceptions like John McCain, they don’t want to own the risk of combat or other physical peril to themselves. It’s strictly “let’s you and him fight”.

It would interesting to know the proportion of hawkish “tough guys” who are physical cowards. Quite a few, judging by their bios.

#3 Comment By Richard W. Bray On February 25, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

As S.I. Hayakawa noted, use purr words to describe yourself and snarl words to describe the opposition. This is how Frank Luntz got rich.

I think of pro-war pundits should refer to themselves as as “muy muy macho.”

#4 Comment By mvictor On February 25, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

Great post. A related linguistic evasion is to refer to our opponents as the “bad guys.” This phrase covers up the fact that in our recent wars we usually have no idea who we are fighting – or why.

#5 Comment By Rossbach On February 25, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

In elementary school, we had a kid who had a muscular way of relating to the other children. None of us knew the word “muscular”, so we just called him the class bully.

#6 Comment By Dan Phillips On February 25, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

It should be changed because it suggests that non-interventionism is by contrast not muscular (or whatever the opposite of muscular is). But the person who walks around throwing his weight around is the one who is insecure about his position. If you are really secure with your position, then you just sit back and dare others to take a shot. Therefore, intervention is the position of fear.

#7 Comment By gabriel syme On February 25, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

While we can doubtless find a better adjective for a hawkish foreign policy than “muscular” or “robust”, just about all adjectives will import an implicit judgement or bias. “Warlike”, for example, connotes an enthusiasm that is not always fair to imply; and hawks could rightly argue that in many cases, the war is already occurring. To use “warlike” makes it out that the alternative is “peaceable”, when the alternative is non-intervention, not peace.

#8 Comment By Colm J On February 25, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

Very good post. Surely one of the reasons the media and liberal opinion objected much more to the Vietnam War than to more recent interventions such as Iraq is that the Draft meant that theoretically anyone of the relevant age could get called up to fight? Indeed some say that Nixon killed the 1960s-1970s leftist counter-culture by ending conscription – since the protest movement of that era crystallised around opposition to the Vietnam War. So perhaps, paradoxically, a reinstatement of the Draft would make the world a more peaceful place – as the chicken hawks on left and right might suddenly discover the virtues of a doveish foreign policy.

#9 Comment By SFBay On February 25, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

re “Warlike”, for example, connotes an enthusiasm that is not always fair to imply; and hawks could rightly argue that in many cases, the war is already occurring. To use “warlike” makes it out that the alternative is “peaceable”, when the alternative is non-intervention, not peace”

What else exactly is “warlike” supposed to mean. I think those who don’t want o use that phrase know exactly what it means. For me the alternative is not peace, it’s either non-intervention in the wars we have no reason to fight or start or alternately peace by another means.

#10 Comment By William Dalton On February 25, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

This is like the pro-abortion lobby, which got the media to call them “pro-choice”. Well, of course, there are many things one may choose, but the only choice at issue is the choice to have an abortion. So why obscure the issue, except to make your choice sound more palatable?

#11 Comment By Ken Hoop On February 25, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

Colm J

Another reason for the media contrast is that Vietnam didn’t threaten Israel.
We called ’em dawks, plenty of them around in and out of media. Doves on Vietnam, hawks on Israel.

#12 Comment By gabriel syme On February 25, 2015 @ 8:15 pm


A lack of imagination often prevents us from understanding the varying motivations of those with whom we disagree. Some hawks are motivated by a version of the “responsibilty to protect”, judging that military interventions are necessary to protect human rights; others may feel that often the US/NATO/the West is more-or-less forced into conflicts they would rather avoid. In the first category you find supporters of wars like Kosovo, Libya and those who want to directly fight Boko Haram now. In the latter camp you’d find some realist backers of anti-communist interventions in the Cold War and, more recently, the invasion of Afghanistan. In both cases, the interventionists are certainly willing to use war, but they could certainly be reluctant or regretful in having to do so.

Moreover, it seems clear to me that the normal antonym of war is peace; and the normal antonym of warlike is peaceable. When applied to foreign policy decisions on whether to intervene in an existing conflict, this would carry non-neutral connotations. The hawks would rightly argue that war is already going on, and so the choice is not between war and peace, but between intervention and non-intervention. Hawks would not be creating a war where none hitherto existed, and doves would have no power to bring peace; but the connotations of “warlike” and “peaceable” imply the opposite.

“Warlike” might be a useful tool in the PR battle, if it could be firmly established; but let us not kid ourselves that it is a neutral descriptor.

#13 Comment By Dolly Llama On February 26, 2015 @ 12:14 am

@William Dalton – Is “pro-life” any more specific?

#14 Comment By Colm J On February 26, 2015 @ 9:34 am

gabriel syme: I think you’re showing the lack of imagination you impute to others. In the first place many of the West’s recent military interventions have been in stable arenas where no wars were already taking place. More fundamentally, terms like pro-war and pro-peace are frequently and justifiably used in a limited national context to describe those for and against the entry of their own country into wars already going on. The idea that the term “peaceable” can only be used about folk living in a world where no wars are taking place anywhere is rather far-fetched. It’s a bit like arguing that you cannot describe as peaceable a man who declines to drive 50 miles to take part in a street brawl going on in another town – on the grounds that the brawl goes on regardless of whether he fights in it or not.

#15 Comment By Colm J On February 26, 2015 @ 9:50 am

Good point. I’d add a third reason for the rise of the “Dawks”: plenty of the anti-Vietnam war contingent were not so much anti-war as pro-Communist. They, and their spiritual descendants, haven’t changed their outlook; it’s just that now they work with, rather than against, American military muscle to enforce their agenda – which, as Paul Gottfried noted recently, is often well to the left (in cultural terms) of 1960s communists.

#16 Comment By Colm J On February 26, 2015 @ 9:52 am

The above reply was in response to Ken Hoop