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Who really said Obama was “leading from behind”?

Throughout the GOP primary season, all the Republican candidates have been hammering the President Barack Obama‘s White House for a strategy of "leading from behind" on foreign policy. Today, a fight erupted in the media over who was responsible for coining that term. An article in USA Today titled "Obama never said ‘leading from behind’" ...

Throughout the GOP primary season, all the Republican candidates have been hammering the President Barack Obama's White House for a strategy of "leading from behind" on foreign policy. Today, a fight erupted in the media over who was responsible for coining that term.

An article in USA Today titled "Obama never said 'leading from behind'" noted today that neither Obama nor any other top aide ever publicly used the term to describe the administration's foreign policy approach. Of course, nobody has ever claimed the phrase was used publicly. It originated from Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece, which quoted a presidential "adviser" using the phrase to characterize Obama's thinking leading up to the U.S. involvement in the Libya war.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor is quoted in the USA Today story claiming that the phrase came from outside the White House staff.

Throughout the GOP primary season, all the Republican candidates have been hammering the President Barack Obama‘s White House for a strategy of "leading from behind" on foreign policy. Today, a fight erupted in the media over who was responsible for coining that term.

An article in USA Today titled "Obama never said ‘leading from behind’" noted today that neither Obama nor any other top aide ever publicly used the term to describe the administration’s foreign policy approach. Of course, nobody has ever claimed the phrase was used publicly. It originated from Ryan Lizza‘s New Yorker piece, which quoted a presidential "adviser" using the phrase to characterize Obama’s thinking leading up to the U.S. involvement in the Libya war.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor is quoted in the USA Today story claiming that the phrase came from outside the White House staff.

"No one in this White House ever said leading from behind. It wasn’t even sourced to an administration official, but rather the more nebulous ‘adviser,’" Vietor told USA Today. "There are hundreds of people who could credibly be called an ‘adviser’ to the President, and there are hundreds more who go to DC cocktail parties and claim to be one."

Vietor sent the USA Today article out to reporters this morning.

Lizza responded on Twitter and said, "Tommy V. is wrong. LFB quote is from WH official."

Several top administration officials have been engaged in a months-long discussion over who really gave the quote to Lizza. The officials most often mentioned in internal speculation as being responsible for the quote are NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes.

It was well-reported that Power was among those who supported the president’s decision to intervene militarily to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Libya.

In a Thursday e-mail to The Cable, Vietor clarified his claim that the statement didn’t come from the White House, but defended his rejection of the phrase "leading from behind" as a description of Obama’s foreign policy.

"There’s has been an enormous amount of press attention given to a background quote that didn’t reflect reality then, and I’d argue that with the death of bin Laden, the U.S. leadership of the civilian protection effort in Libya, and our foreign policy record generally, hasn’t worn…well over time," Vietor said.

"Why Ryan [Lizza] decided to change his sourcing is a mystery to me, but that doesn’t change the fact that the President has been leading on foreign policy since his first day in office, and has an impressive record to show for it. I guess I should’ve said ‘no one at the White House who knows how the President actually thinks’ said that, but regardless I hope we can start talking about our actual record and not an article from May."

Either way, Obama is trying hard to distance himself from the quote these days.

"We lead from the front," Obama said on the Jay Leno show Tuesday. "We introduced the resolution in the United Nations that allowed us to protect civilians in Libya when [Muammar] Qaddafi was threatening to slaughter them."

"It was our extraordinary men and women in uniform, our pilots who took out their air defense systems, set up a no-fly zone. It was our folks in NATO who were helping to coordinate the NATO operation there."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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