Why Hawkish Foreign Policy Shouldn’t Be Called “Muscular”
Peter Beinart criticizes 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.