What Obama Does Abroad Matters More Than What He Says There


Yet a recent New York Times editorial proceeds as if the president's three-year-old Cairo speech merits more attention than his drone strikes.

new york times full reuters.jpg

In an editorial titled "The United States and the Muslim World," the New York Times argues that Mulsim rage is about more than offensive films. "Deeper forces are at work in those societies, riven by pent-up anger over a lack of jobs, economic stagnation and decades of repression by previous Arab governments," the editorial states. It goes on to describe America's approach to the region. "In 2009, President Obama wisely sought rapprochement with Muslims," the newspaper declares. "Speaking in Cairo, he endorsed an approach of mutual respect and promised that, while he would never hesitate to confront extremism, America never would be at war with Islam. He also challenged Muslims to establish elected, peaceful governments that respect all their people."

Imagine how absurd this summary would sound to the average Muslim in countries suffering through unrest. It is but the latest instance of talented journalists at respected publications totally whitewashing American foreign policy since 2009, when the Obama Administration started running things. It's the strangest thing. Premier publications, especially The New York Times and The New Yorker, have been indispensable in these years, publishing vital stories on everything from drone strikes to executive decisionmaking to balance of powers issues to civil liberties abuses. But when it comes time to sum up recent history, to shape the narrative of the last several years, those issues are often totally left out by journalists, as if they're inconsequential.

This is bad enough when assessing the president's first term overall. But the whitewashing is at its most absurd when an editorial on the U.S. and the Muslim world, occasioned by ascendant rage in the latter, totally fails to mention any of the most rage-inducing Obama Administration actions abroad. The New York Times writes as if Obama's Cairo speech was more consequential, and looms larger on the Muslim street, than an ongoing drone campaign waged in multiple Muslim-majority countries, and routinely responsible for the deaths of innocents. If "pent up anger over lack of jobs" is a "deeper force" worthy of mention, how can the fact that we've been waging war in this part of the world nonstop for roughly a decade go unmentioned? How about our ongoing relationships with repressive autocrats? And widespread Muslim frustrations at America's approach to the disputes between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

When it comes to summing up the Obama Administration's foreign policy, the press too often acts as if what President Obama said in early 2009 is more important than what he's done in the years since. What explains the gulf between the specific actions that media outlets report on and the narratives distilled from them? Whatever the answer, Americans are being told a story about the Obama Administration approach to the world that makes it impossible for them to assess reality.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Politics

Just In