NEW YORK -- In late June, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza was following Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann on the campaign trail when he heard the Republican presidential contender utter three familiar words used to criticize President Obama: “leading from behind.”
Lizza certainly knew the phrase, having quoted an anonymous Obama adviser describing the president as "leading from behind" in Libya last spring. After the speech, Lizza informed Bachmann's press secretary that the oft-used quote was actually first used to reference an Obama doctrine in his April New Yorker piece. He then whipped out the issue that contained his article on Obama's foreign policy response to the Arab Spring. “She had no idea,” Lizza told The Huffington Post, adding that it was one “small example of how these things take on a life of their own and get ripped out of the context.”
It wouldn't be the first time that context got lost en route to cable news studios or the stump. "I never thought the phrase meant a lack of leadership," Lizza said. "I thought it meant making things happen without your face out in front, because being out in front could scuttle your goal." Indeed, by "leading from behind," the Obama administration got U.N.-backing for military force to help prevent an anticipated slaughter in Benghazi, while simultaneously minimizing the perception of another U.S.-led invasion of a Muslim country.
Of course, Obama never actually said he was "leading from behind" in Libya and thus couldn't jump into the media fray to defend that approach. But in the months that followed, the idea of a "leading from behind" doctrine gained traction among conservative pundits and columnists and found its way into Republican campaign speeches. And in the past week, following the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime, political writers and policy experts supportive of the president's Libya strategy have thrown the phrase back at conservative skeptics.
Looking back on the phrase's evolution, Lizza says his boss, New Yorker editor David Remnick, offers a more apt way of explaining Obama’s Middle East doctrine in this week’s issue: “leading from behind the scenes.” He argues that contrary to the Bush administration’s bravado in the Middle East, willingness to ignore long-standing allies, and premature victory celebrations, the Obama administration took a different approach in Libya by bombing only after getting Arab League support for a no-fly-zone and U.N. authorization for air strikes. “Obama led from a place of no glory, and, in the eyes of his critics, no results could ever vindicate such a strategy,” Remnick writes, concluding that Obama wouldn’t “be the first statesman to realize that it can be easier to win if you don’t need to trumpet your victory.”
Leading from behind. You could almost hear the speed-dials revving at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee. The phrase ricocheted from one Murdoch-owned editorial page and television studio to the next; Obama was daily pilloried as a timorous pretender who, out of a misbegotten sense of liberal guilt, unearned self-regard, and downright unpatriotic acceptance of fading national glory, had handed over the steering wheel of global leadership to the Élysée Palace.
Lizza's piece appeared online April 24 and it didn't take long to get picked up on the right.
That morning, Fox News’ Brit Hume brought up the phrase while mentioning how Obama “is kind of making it up as he goes along, as he confronts this chaotic and either hopeful or not so hopeful situation in the Middle East.” A few days later, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post that “leading from behind is not leading. It is abdicating.” The Weekly Standard even trumpeted the phrase and depicted a fearful Obama in the desert on its cover a week later; the issue ironically hit newsstands along with the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed.
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol blasted the idea of “leading from behind” in his editorial:
Thank you, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous Obama Adviser Speaking on Background to Ryan Lizza. Thank you for so boldly and visibly injecting into our politics the phrase “leading from behind.” Thank you for associating it with your boss. Thanks for confirming that our current president believes his task is to accommodate American decline. Thanks for reminding us how high a priority he places on appeasing those who revile us. And thanks for explaining that our Leader from Behind sees his role as “shepherding us through this phase” of appeasement and decline.
The phrase got extensive pick-up in the months that followed; it was typically wielded to portray a weakened U.S. position abroad under Obama. While Lizza says the "original context got lost through the conservative media echo chamber,” he notes that some liberal pundits also used "leading from behind" when speaking critically of Obama’s handling of the recent debt ceiling talks. But now, the phrase has once again entered the media bloodstream following the Libyan rebels' successful assault on Tripoli.
Last week, Politico’s Ben Smith asked if that victory against Gaddafi's forces is also “a victory for ‘leading from behind'" and reported that several foreign policy experts say it is. That same day, Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell wrote that the once-criticized “leading from behind” strategy in Libya “now seems utterly vindicated” and Salon's Steve Kornacki predicted the end to that "obnoxious talking point" used by conservative critics and candidates.
Lizza acknowledged that in today's 24-7 news cycle, where provocative quotes can get plucked out and spread instantly via Twitter, "you don't always have control over a 10,000-word article."
"For better or worse," he said, "that’s what that piece will be remembered for."