Of Course Obama Didn't Coin 'Leading from Behind'

President Obama, it seems, is well within the tradition of American presidents who got stuck with a foreign policy catchphrase not of their making.

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President Obama, it seems, is well within the tradition of American presidents who got stuck with a foreign policy catchphrase not of their making. On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno this week, Obama discussed "leading from behind," the popular moniker for his foreign policy in Libya. "This was a phrase that the media picked up on," Obama said on the show. "But it's not one that I ever used." Indeed, the phrase originated in a New Yorker piece by Ryan Lizza, which read, "One of [Obama's] advisers described the President's actions in Libya as 'leading from behind.'" Thus, a simple phrase the media could latch onto, condemn, and praise. But today, in a USA Today article, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor went further to claim, "No one in this White House ever said leading from behind." Lizza clarifies on Twitter today that it did, in fact, come from a White House "official." Either way, Obama shouldn't be too upset. In fact, some of our best-known foreign policy memes have been set into motion by a nameless administration "official." Here are a few:

George W. Bush's "shock and awe." It was the endlessly cited name of the Bush administration's planned strategy in Iraq. As The New York Times wrote in March, 2003, "The plan's central element, according to widespread press reports, will be an intense 'shock and awe' assault that stuns Iraqi forces into quick submission." The phrase comes from the title of a 1996 National Defense University treatise by Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade [pdf] in which they actually wanted to advance another term: Rapid Dominance.

To affect the will of the adversary, Rapid Dominance will apply a variety of approaches and techniques to achieve the necessary level of Shock and Awe at the appropriate strategic and military leverage points. This means that psychological and intangible, as well as physical and concrete, effects beyond the destruction of enemy forces and supporting military infrastructure will have to be achieved. It is in this broader and deeper strategic application that Rapid Dominance perhaps most fundamentally differentiates itself from current doctrine and offers revolutionary application. 

It's no wonder that "shock and awe" had more staying power than "rapid dominance," but at the time the press reports rarely cited them or anyone for the phrase, typically assigning it to "Pentagon officials." But George W. Bush himself didn't put it forward in the lead up to the war.

Bill Clinton's "strategic patience."  A 1999 "On Language" column for the New York Times Magazine, William Saffire uncovers the origin of this name for Clinton's policy toward Russia.

On Sept. 19, 1997, [Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State] offered his conception to Stanford University: 'We need to make sure we have a policy toward Russia that contains an indispensable feature: strategic patience.' ... [A]fter Talbott slipped his diplomatic usage into the bulrushes, the Senate's authority on foreign affairs, Richard Lugar, picked it up in a January 1998 Harvard speech. 'American policy toward Russia must contain a healthy dose of strategic patience,' he said, accepting the Talbott definition.

And thus did a state department official slap Clinton with a phrase he never used.

Harry Truman's "containment." When George F. Kennan was at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, he sent back a report using a word that would later come to represent U.S. foreign policy toward Communism for the greater part of the century. But he published that report anonymously, with the pseudonym "X" in Foreign Affairs magazine, where he wrote, "[I]t is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." And so, the Truman Doctrine was given a name by someone other than Harry Truman.

In his "On Language" column, Saffire put forward a theory as to why so many successful foreign policy names are coined not at a State of the Union, but under cloudier circumstances:

As a former correspondent and columnist for Time magazine, [Clinton Deputy Secretary of State] Talbott knew that a diplomatic word or phrase had to be conceived in quietude, preferably before an academic audience, and then be allowed to develop slowly over the months. Any more pretentious unveiling, or capitalization, would alert the legion of carping critics to strangle the label in its crib.

A phrase "conceived in quietude" and leaked slowly to an educated audience -- sounds a bit like the thinking of whichever official gave Lizza the now famous "leading from behind" phrase. It seems then that a quick phrase to summarize a complex policy is -- like "leading from behind" or "containment," -- our American way.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.