Hillary Clinton's Foreign Policy Isn't 'Muscular'—It's Bellicose

When the press mistakes being hawkish for being tough, it distorts the political debate.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy speech at the Brookings Institution reflected the fact that the former secretary of state is much more hawkish than President Obama. She favored the Iraq War. She believes the U.S. should’ve intervened in Iran during the failed Green Revolution. She urged U.S. intervention in Libya. And she unsuccessfully lobbied for the U.S. to assist anti-government rebels in Syria.

Journalists should note her hawkish, interventionist record. But when writing about it, they should not unconsciously embed hawkish, interventionist assumptions in their coverage by characterizing her approach as a more “muscular” or “tougher” foreign policy than the one offered during the Obama Administration.

Muscle relates to physical power and strength.

If Hillary Clinton said, “The United States should invest in more powerful bombs, more manpower in the Army, and more aircraft carriers in the Navy,” it might make sense to say that she preferred a more muscular approach than the status quo. But the muscularity of the United States isn’t where Obama and Clinton disagree. They favor the same amount of muscle. Clinton is just more inclined to initiate violence with it. Calling her more militaristic would be more accurate, but that word has negative connotations, so despite its accuracy it is not used by the political press.

Comparing toughness is not a neutral or accurate way to contrast their policy differences, either. The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan writes, “Again and again, Clinton pointed to instances overseas where she would have taken a tougher stance than Obama, from arming Syrian rebels to confronting an expansionist Russia.” In that formulation, “tougher” is used as a synonym for hawkish or interventionist.

In reality, neither disagreement turned on differing notions of how “tough” the U.S. ought to be. With regard to arming the Syrian rebels, for example, debate focused partly on whether U.S. weapons might fall into the hands of foreign jihadists. A president would oppose such a policy if he wanted the U.S. to be maximally “tough” in advancing its interests but also believed that arming the Syrian rebels was likely to fail as a strategy while ceding U.S. weapons to Islamist militants.

With regard to Iran, where Obama and Clinton both support the nuclear deal, the real difference is that Obama speaks diplomatically. Clinton is more bellicose, which is to say, more conspicuously vocal about her aggression and willingness to fight. But again, bellicosity has a negative connotation, so the more accurate word goes unused. Calling her rhetoric sharper or more pointed would be better than “tougher.”

These distinctions matter. Most Americans, myself included, want the United States to have a lot of muscle to deter others from attacking us and to defend ourselves when necessary; we want a leader who is tough in the sense of being strong and determined; and when our interests, guided by justice, necessitate war, we want everyone going out to kill the enemy to be well-trained and tough as hell.

It’s no wonder that those words have positive connotations.

They also have denotations.

The reporters using them would never assert that Clinton’s foreign-policy speech shows that she is stronger and more determined than Obama, knowing it shows no such thing.

But that’s what “tougher” means.

When a foreign-policy choice like Iraq came along, and Hillary Clinton joined George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in denouncing Saddam Hussein in the sharpest terms and favoring a war of choice, some presciently saw that those hawks, sitting in their Washington, D.C., offices, weren’t “muscular” or “tough,” and neither were their policies. As a matter of conventional military strength, the U.S. was orders of magnitude more muscular than Iraq. There are no tougher soldiers than Americans in the field. But going to war cost the United States more blood and treasure than any of its proponents anticipated, and it stumbled into a quagmire partly because so many mistakenly equated hawkish interventionism with “muscularity” and “toughness,” even as they conflated anti-war arguments with weakness. In the end, the Iraq War left many of America’s muscles ruined and made the nation far less “tough” from the perspective of the Iranians, who gained much leverage.

I don’t expect ostensibly neutral political reporters to savage Clinton’s foreign-policy statements. But neither should they adopt the assumptions of neoconservative ideologues, conflating her bellicose hawkishness with toughness and muscularity. The consequences of that error have been too dire and too recent to risk repeating.