Obama blames the press

The senator wasn’t clear on Pakistan, and so he smacks an easy scapegoat

As Ben Smith at Politico points out today, Barack Obama has been blaming the media for misrepresenting his position on Pakistan, articulated in his big foreign policy speech last week. “The misreporting that was done needs to be cleared up,” Obama told a Sioux City, Iowa, audience yesterday. “I never called for an invasion of Pakistan.”

The original speech (the text of which can be found here) did make big news for Obama’s comments about breaking with the administration’s current friendly approach to Pakistan and its president, Pervez Musharraf. Obama criticized the Bush administration’s hands-off strategy, which has left the search for Al Qaeda leadership — thought to be comfortably ensconced in mountainous western Pakistan — largely in the hands of the Pakistani authorities, who have made little if any progress on this front. Obama said that, as president, he would not only withhold “the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid” until the Pakistanis do more to prevent their country from becoming a safe haven for Bin Laden, et al., but asserted that, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

So, did the media blow this promise out of proportion, as Obama claimed?

This is how the The New York Times reported on his remarks in its initial story: Obama said “…the United States should shift its military focus away from the Iraq war to a broader fight against Islamic extremism, vowing to dispatch American forces to eradicate terrorist camps in Pakistan if that nation failed to take such action.”

Here’s The Washington Post’s lead: “Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama issued a pointed warning yesterday to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, saying that as president he would be prepared to order U.S. troops into that country unilaterally if it failed to act on its own against Islamic extremists.”

And The Los Angeles Times description: “Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, in a major foreign policy address, took a hard line on terrorism today, saying the United States may need to strike targets inside its ally Pakistan if the government does not escalate its fight against militants.”

None of the major papers used the word, “invasion.” Every journalist who listened to Obama’s speech understood that he meant strategic unilateral strikes against Al Qaeda camps or limited operations to capture terrorists. The expressions used were, “eradicate terrorist camps” and “strike targets.” No one said “invade.” That’s not to say the more right-wing news outlets, like the New York Post, didn’t grab the opportunity to mock Obama as being hopelessly naïve about foreign policy (it even went Dukakis on him, posing him on a tank with a photo-shopped helmet on his head). But, as far as I can see, the papers that could be expected to cover Obama’s speech responsibly, did so.

The problem was with Obama. He wasn’t precise enough in his description of a delicate subject. In his haste to shore up his foreign policy credentials in the wake of the YouTube debate kerfuffle he left open a small crack for all kinds of interpretations, including the unlikely one that he has in mind an Iraq-style invasion of Pakistan. After all, Obama’s clarification yesterday came after he was repeatedly questioned by confused Iowans who had misunderstood his words. It didn’t help, of course, that the right took advantage of his vagueness, with Mitt Romney dubbing the senator “Dr. Strangelove” at the last Republican debate.

It’s easy to blame the media when a candidate feels the public has misunderstood his position. But in this case, as in many to come, the press didn’t blow it, the candidate did.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.