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Opinion You probably think this war is about you

A man looks on at the destruction on a street in Benghazi, Libya, in April. Destruction has permeated the North African country since the civil war ousted Moammar Gaddafi four years ago. (Mohamed Salama/Associated Press)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about “othering” and the Middle East. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs.

“War is god’s way of teaching Americans geography,” the old line often misattributed to Ambrose Bierce, is both mostly true and a little unfair. As someone who writes about international affairs for a living, I might wish that we all paid a bit more attention to events beyond our borders, even when the United States isn’t directly involved in them. But I have enough perspective to realize that we live in a big, diverse and complicated country, with plenty to pay attention to close to home.

With limited journalistic resources and audience attention spans, as well as a host of competing domestic concerns, the United States’ media and political conversation can rarely accommodate more than one major international situation at a time. Ukraine gives way to Syria, gives way to Libya, gives way to Syria again, and so on. This wandering myopia tends to give the impression of a world in perpetual dire crisis: We focus on events in any given region or country only when things are blowing up there.

[Other perspectives: Muslims are facing a civil rights crisis in America, and it’s the media’s fault]

This impression obscures the facts: that living standards are slowly but steadily improving in most parts of the world and that — with some notable and obvious exceptions — armed conflict is becoming less common and less violent. It’s hard to imagine that this misperception doesn’t color public attitudes on issues ranging from immigration and trade to national security and defense. We see a world either always in need of our help or best avoided.

Coupled with our war-of-the-week attention span is an (equally understandable) tendency to view events through the prism of U.S. domestic politics. The most glaring example of this is “Benghazi,” which has been transformed in U.S. political discourse from a real city in Libya with real and ongoing problems into a partisan talking point.

But it certainly doesn’t stop there. When a foreign country’s dictator is overthrown by mass demonstrations, it’s a victory for the Obama administration’s foreign policy. When another country erupts into civil war, it’s a demonstration of President Obama’s failed leadership. Every problem was either caused by our mistakes or something we ought to be able to fix if we were smarter about it. We see this from the right in the Republican Party’s fetish for demonstrations of strength and resolve and in the left’s determination to see blowback to U.S. policy as the root cause of strife around the world.

Ironically, this narcissistic worldview is often mirrored abroad. Leaders and publics in other countries have a tendency to assume that the United States spends far more time thinking about them than it actually does. This was summed up in a headline in a Ugandan newspaper shortly after the United States’ 2008 presidential election, which assured readers that the East African country “tops Obama’s agenda.” Less innocuously, blaming internal protest on U.S. influence is the oldest trick in the dictator’s handbook.

This isn’t to say that the United States doesn’t play an outsize role in the internal politics of other countries, both as a soft and hard power. It undoubtedly has from the Cold War to the drone war, and it would behoove American voters and leaders to think more critically about the unintended consequences of foreign policy decisions made during moments of crisis and public outrage.

But thanks in part to the way we consume international news, we also sometimes have a tendency to forget that events can take place beyond U.S. control and wholly separate from U.S. policy. Viewing events in the Middle East purely as a test of U.S. leadership ignores the region’s own social, religious and economic dynamics. Viewing Ukraine purely as a contest of wills between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Obama leaves out the aspirations of the Ukrainian people themselves.

Understanding when events are taking place independently of U.S. policy can help us craft better policy. Sometimes, it really isn’t about us.

Explore these other perspectives:

Evelyn Alsultany: Muslims are facing a civil rights crisis in America, and it’s the media’s fault

Derek Gregory: Our failures abroad stem from a lack of imagination

Salman Sayyid: Colonialism is a state of mind

Stephen Szabo: Europe’s identity crisis