'Muscular Foreign Policy' Is an Orwellian Phrase

A more combative approach may weaken, and not strengthen, our global standing.

Newspaper editors, lend me your ears: Please, never allow the phrase “muscular foreign policy” to blight your pages again. Yesterday, Jonathan Martin and Jeremy W. Peters of The New York Times used variations of it three times in a single article. Republican presidential candidates, they declared, “are “scrambling to outmuscle one another on foreign policy.” John Bolton and Lindsey Graham “are considering their own White House bids largely to draw attention to the need for a more muscular foreign policy.” And in his speech last week in Chicago, Jeb Bush “found himself embracing the sort of muscular engagement that had characterized the 43rd president’s administration.”

Martin and Peters are smart, talented political reporters, which just shows how endemic the phrase has become. (I may even have used it myself at some point, though I can’t remember when). First, muscular is not a neutral word. It basically means strong. Its opposite is weak, puny, flabby, flaccid. Whether Martin and Peters realize it or not, by calling Republican foreign policy “muscular,” they’re essentially signaling their approval.

Second, and more importantly, “muscular” is a euphemism. When Martin and Peters say George W. Bush pursued a policy of “muscular engagement,” what they really mean is that he twice took the United States to war. On his orders, the American military invaded two countries, killing hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis in order to remove governments that Bush feared might take part in attacks the United States, and which were abusing their people. Similarly, when Martin and Peters say Bolton and Graham want to “draw attention to the need for a more muscular foreign policy,” what they really mean is that Bolton and Graham want the United States to send more ground troops to kill members of ISIS in Iraq, send more weapons to militias in Syria to do the same, drop more bombs on both countries from the air, kill more Pakistani and Yemeni militants (and inadvertently, some of their family members or neighbors) in drone attacks, send weapons to the Ukrainian government to use against Russian-backed rebels, and potentially drop thousands of bombs on Iran to prevent it from building a nuclear weapon.

The correct adjective for these policies is not “muscular.” It is “warlike.” Muscular is a condition. War is an action. War can sometimes make a country more muscular: World War II dramatically enhanced American strength. But war can also make a country less muscular: Vietnam weakened the United States by fueling budget deficits and inflation, eroding public trust in America’s leaders and exacerbating cultural and political division. Will launching a new war with Iran, expanding our current war against ISIS and arming the Ukrainians in their war with Russia make America more “muscular”? Will it make our military, our economy and our democracy stronger? Perhaps. But the job of  reporters is to lay out that debate; not prejudge it.

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.

George Orwell famously wrote that, “Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Orwell was not a pacifist, and neither am I. Today we learned that ISIS has abducted 150 Assyrian Christians, whom it will likely rape, torture, enslave or murder. In order to save their lives, or the lives of future ISIS victims, I want my government to kill.

Orwell’s point was not that people should remain morally pure. It was that people should use language that makes them face the realities of what they advocate rather than language that obscures those realities. If the Republican presidential hopefuls want more war, then let The Times explain why they want more war. But, please, let’s not pretend that being “muscular” has anything to do with it.