The Cable

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'" 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."

The Cable

Georgia to Russia on WTO: Take it or leave it

The Georgian government accepted a Swiss proposal this morning that would pave the way for Georgia to sign off on Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization. But will the Russians take the deal?

"We told the Russians that we accept this proposal and we told them this is the moment of truth," Sergi Kapanadze, Georgia's deputy foreign minister and the lead Georgian negotiator, told The Cable in a phone interview from Switzerland on Thursday.

He said the proposal was Georgia's final offer and, if Russia wants to proceed with its WTO accession on schedule, it will have to accept the Swiss terms.

"It's quite obvious the text cannot change. We have exhausted the creativity, this addresses the red lines of both sides," Kapanadze said.

Without Georgian agreement, Russia can't join the WTO, which has always admitted members based on the unanimous consensus of existing members. The talks had been stymied due to a disagreement over how the flow of goods between Russia and Georgia would be monitored, and how any disputes over monitoring between the two countries would be adjudicated. The deal does not address the political status of the disputed territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia.

The latest Swiss proposal -- the one the Georgians have accepted -- represents a compromise on both points. It stipulates that monitoring on the Russia-Georgia border would be done by a private company chosen by either the Swiss or the EU. The Russians had wanted to choose the company, while the Georgians had wanted the monitoring to be done by an international organization, not a private firm. Right now, only Russian personnel monitor the borders.

Any disputes over the customs monitoring would go to third-party arbitration, according to the Swiss deal. The Russians had wanted disputes to go to a process of non-binding "conciliation." The Georgians had wanted disputes to be adjudicated within the WTO, a body they trust. The arbitration scheme is a compromise between those positions, Georgia's National Security Adviser Giga Bokeria told The Cable in an interview from Tbilisi.

"All the major principles are there, it's up to the Russians to say yes," Bokeria said. "They haven't said yes, they haven't said no."

The Russian embassy did not respond to requests for comment. Maxim Medvedkov, Russia's chief negotiator, told Bloomberg News today that Russia will need "several days to give an answer."

Georgia had been set to play the spoiler to Russia's long-held ambition to join the WTO. Russian forces still occupy the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia has failed to live up the agreements that concluded the 2008 Russia-Georgia war  by removing its forces from Georgia territory.

But Georgia was pressured from outside sources, such as the European Union, to make a deal. The Obama administration has maintained that it would not pressure Georgia to accept Russia into the WTO, but the matter was discussed during Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns' visit to Georgia last week.

Sam Charap, director for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for American Progress, said the deal is potentially workable because it doesn't favor either side's position on the political status of the disputed territories, and allows for enforcement of trade rules that will open up the Russian market to Georgian goods.

"It's a big step forward. It seems like a pretty status-neutral outcome," Charap said. "At the end of the day everyone, including Georgia, benefits from Russia being in the WTO."

He also noted that by announcing the deal publicly, the Georgians are effectively turning the screws on Russia to take the deal.

"It does certainly put the pressure on the Russians, and they look like they are being obstinate now if they don't accept what's on the table," said Charap.

The Atlantic Council's Executive Vice President Damon Wilson, who recently released a report on Georgia's integration with the West, said that the Russians could have easily solved the dispute but set initially terms that were unfair to Georgia.

"This whole issue didn't have to become so politicized," Wilson said. "If  Russia really wanted to get into WTO without humiliating Georgia in the process, they could have made a deal quietly and a long time ago."