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.”
It is true that the conflict was not as overtly sectarian then as it is now. Yet to take the spokesmen of the opposition at their word suggests a dangerous optimism, a belief that the confessional divisions that have been an element of Levantine politics for centuries would be washed away by the opposition’s common aspiration to pluralism. Moreover, Syria’s transcendence of identity and clique would occur in the wake of a dictatorship and its downfall. Such optimism is admirable, but it is not a good basis for policy. Even Gandhi, remember, could not keep India together, and Syria has no such figure.
The Mahatma figured in another Nuland narrative, that of the nonviolence of the opposition. Weeks after the formation of the Free Syrian Army and two months after major acts of armed resistance had already occurred, Nuland suggested that “the Syrian people . . . have chosen the Martin Luther King and Gandhi course of peaceful protest.” The protests had originally been nonviolent, at least in the stone-throwing way that passes for nonviolence in the Middle East, but that was changing quickly. As late as December 2011, with the FSA organized and two-way violence becoming more frequent, Nuland was speaking of the “largely peaceful response of the protesters,” praising plans for a general strike, and saying that “we think it’s a mischaracterization of the situation to say that there are – that the violence in Syria is the result of agiteurs. We know where the violence is coming from. The violence is coming from Asad’s regime.” Two days later, a coordinated rebel attack on two checkpoints in Daraa killed twenty-seven soldiers. Of course, it was appropriate for the United States to favor nonviolent demonstrators over others, and it is true that the transformation of the mass protests into a national civil war was directly caused by the regime’s brutal crackdown. Assad and his henchmen bear the moral responsibility for their country’s dissolution. Yet Nuland gave the impression that the United States either was oblivious to the evolving nature of the conflict or was willing to turn a blind eye to violence by the side it favored.
Nuland also seemed unaware of the broader regional dynamics that were beginning to shape Syria. Asked in November about the motives of the Arab League, and especially Qatar, in launching peace initiatives, Nuland replied that “their goals are the same as ours. This is their neighborhood. This is their region. They’ve got a great stake in regional stability, in stability inside Syria, in Syria living up to its potential to set a nonsectarian, democratic example for the region, which is obviously what the opposition is asking for the chance to do. [The neighbors’] objectives are the same as ours.” This has proven untrue. Qatar
Of course, Nuland was acting as a mouthpiece for the State Department during this period, so her words are not entirely her own. Yet it is hard to imagine such a simplistic account of the Syrian crisis prevailing through all of Foggy Bottom. There were surely those in the diplomatic community who recognized that the nature of Syrian society and the Assad regime within it created a strong chance for the political confrontation to become a violent conflict along sectarian lines, one that would deeply destabilize the region and make the initial policy of encouraging the opposition appear callow, tendentious or both.
If Nuland, as anticipated, is nominated to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, the confirmation hearing should attempt to determine whether Nuland really does see America’s complicated global affairs in such black and white terms. It is a further tragedy of Benghazi that such questions will be given little time.