Foggy Bottom Dualist

Former State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland sees the world black, white, and free of complexity.

The personnel process in the second Obama administration has lately taken a strange character. Hordes of political-appointee slots—key in taking the president’s will into the lower levels of the bureaucracy—remain unfilled. Even critical positions, like the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, can lie fallow for months. Officials who embarrass the administration remain in place or take ages to be turfed out. Perhaps this is in part because clearing new appointees has also become strange. The incoming defense secretary of a nation at war, a man who would soon be charged with maintaining one of the most powerful militaries in human history, was grilled for hours on his views about a regional ally and asked to submit the text of speeches he’d given years before; the wars in progress and the global security situation were largely passed over. A prospective secretary of state was blocked not for her history of questionable judgments but for delivering administration talking points on Benghazi that proved inaccurate. And the Benghazi incidents could now dominate another key appointment that deserves scrutiny on other grounds.

Victoria Nuland, a career foreign-service officer, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, and until recently State Department spokeswoman, was party to an extended email conversation among several senior national-security officials that ultimately led to the watering down of talking points on the Benghazi incident. Yet the email chain does not suggest Nuland actually made the changes, and the initial drafts seemed to prematurely assign blame to the State Department. Several prominent voices have already stepped up to defend Nuland, and the most scandalous elements of the Benghazi affair seem to lie elsewhere.

Yet one thing is sure: Nuland has gotten negative press for her involvement, and will face intense scrutiny if she appears before Congress. That day may come soon. Nuland is widely rumored to be in the running to become the next Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, a very prestigious post. Her confirmation hearing is sure to center on the Benghazi talking points. This is unfortunate, and not only because Nuland was a peripheral figure in the Benghazi affair. A look at her remarks during the emergence of the Syria crisis in 2011 suggests that Nuland has a rather naive understanding of how the world works, a bad trait in a policymaker. She expressed few doubts that the events in Syria were part of the inexorable march of history toward freedom and democracy, or that the opposition was anything other than a tolerant and nonviolent movement from all sections of Syrian society. She was confident that Syria’s neighbors (except Iran, of course) wanted nothing more than to help Syria become open and democratic, and that with the fall of Assad the opposition could readily overcome the region’s ancient social cleavages and realize a more perfect Syria.

From her very first briefing in June 2011, Nuland embraced an oppressor-versus-liberator narrative of the growing instability, a narrative that has proven inappropriate for a society like Syria’s, riven by sectarian divisions. Nuland repeatedly talked up the breadth of the opposition—”it’s also growing in terms of its complexion; it now includes Alawi, Druze, Christians, businessmen, merchants – there are even members of the military”—and seemed oblivious to the possibility that Assad could retain the support of significant shares of the Syrian population that feared their fate would be negative in the event that the opposition brought down the regime.

Defections from the military, for instance, were “a matter of conscience” in Nuland’s view. Yet Syria’s military is designed with a sectarian character that is crucial to explaining who defects and who doesn’t. Key posts are filled by Alawis or certain trusted Sunni clans; the rank and file in many main line units, however, are drawn from the general Sunni population. Some units, accordingly, are loyal pillars of the regime; others were not even trusted enough to be armed and sent out for battle. While conscience surely imposed a moral obligation on Syrian soldiers to defect, sect had much more to do with who heeded the obligation.

Nuland’s denial of the sectarian element of the war persisted as late as early November 2011, when she told a reporter asking whether Syria’s “widening . . . sectarian schism” could lead to the emergence of an Iraq-like civil war that “I’m not sure we share that analysis,” and that “what we are hearing from folks across the political spectrum in Syria is that, in fact, groups that have never worked together in Syria before are starting to coalesce, starting to meet each other, starting to find common cause in this opposition movement. And the other thing that’s important is all of these opposition groups are espousing the same thing, which is a future for Syria that is nonsectarian, that is tolerant, that is pluralistic.”

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