What Obama Does Abroad Matters More Than What He Says There

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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.

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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.

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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.

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