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.