By Patricia H. Kushlis
Update: 7/12/2013 - Toria grilled about Benghazi role at Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing today for her next high level position: Assistant Secretary of State for Europe.
Is Hillary asleep at the switch? What is going on here?
Earlier this week, Josh Rogin at FP and Eric Martin at Progressive Realist both flagged the curious appointment of Victoria Nuland as the next State Department Spokesperson to fill P.J. Crowley’s shoes.
Martin questions whether this has foreign policy implications, in particular the replacement of an anti-torture appointee with someone who served as Principal Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Cheney.
Rogin doesn’t directly raise potential administration policy shifts but does point out that once upon a time Nuland was Strobe Talbott’s Chief of Staff when he was Deputy Secretary of State during the Clinton Administration and that Talbott had thought very highly of her at the time and still does. In fact, he, according to Rogin, praised her to the hilt in an interview about the pending appointment. So the seemingly amoral Nuland, we’re led to believe, can and will do anyone’s bidding and do it well – in short, a consummate career diplomat.
But why would Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration agree to appoint to this politically sensitive position someone who willingly served such a controversial figure in suppporting and implementing the “war on terror” and all the baggage that comes with it? Furthermore, how reliable is a Talbott reference anyway? After all, I understand that he just helped his friend Robert Kagan, Nuland’s neocon husband, get a job at Brookings and Talbott is also a friend of neocon writer Marc Gerecht, the husband of Diane Zeleny who also just latched onto a likely sweetheart deal sort of appointment as Head of External Relations and Congressional Affairs at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Whether Zeleny deserves or is qualified for the position or not.
From what I know about the Department, an FSO doesn’t just get detailed to the staff of a highly charged and ideological Vice President unless that detailee agrees to follow the boss’s dictates. Cheney’s were all too often forceful and odious. Furthermore, does anyone really think that Cheney –with his penchant for super loyalty and secrecy - would have ever accepted Nuland (or anyone else) for the position without some kind of loyalty test?
Surely the State Department under Hillary Clinton could have found equally (or likely even better) qualified career candidates who do not carry Nuland’s political baggage.
Behind the scenes trade off?
Or was this some kind of behind the scenes deal – a trade off for who knows what - that those of us innocents outside the inner circles are not privy?
Regardless, there are several particularly unique – or just plain peculiar – unsettling things about this appointment depending upon the way one looks at it:
- First, Nuland comes from what has turned out to be an under-the-radar-non-job as a Special Envoy to the moribund multilateral Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Talks. This position is nowhere equivalent in stature to that of Ambassador to NATO a prestigious and high profile position she held under W and Rice after leaving Cheney’s office.
Since she’s been Special Envoy, the CFE Talks seem to have gone exactly nowhere. They were supposed to have ended some time ago and morphed into new talks about European troop levels and numbers of non-nuclear weapons. But it doesn’t look as if that has happened either.
Such a Special Envoy position does not appear to have required Senate confirmation. Certainly I could find no evidence it did. Basically it even sounds like a demotion of sorts – not another rung up on the hierarchical ladder to State’s stratosphere.
- Second, Nuland has, in fact, never been a press spokesperson – even though Talbott tried to assure Rogin that her stint as US Ambassador to NATO under the Bush Administration was qualification enough.
- Third, although Nuland knows Russia and NATO really well, what about the rest of the world? I don’t doubt that she is glib and a quick study but the Cold War is long over. Russia is just one country – albeit large and the only real nuclear weapons threat this country has - and NATO a single security relationship. Those pesky noon press briefings, nevertheless, cover the entire globe.
- Fourth, it’s unclear to me whether Nuland will need to go through Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings for the new position because, well, the two-pronged job that Crowley held did. The first prong was as highly visible spokesman. The second as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. And I'm pretty sure that Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs did require Senate approval. But will Nuland face Senatorial scrutiny just as Spokesperson or not? Maybe not and for her, that could only be fortuitous. She’s too closely associated with Cheney and company to make this spokesperson appointment necessarily smooth sailing through a committee controlled by Democrats.
Is a Public Affairs Trifecta Really Necessary?
Mark Hammer will be nominated as State’s new Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. He is a career FSO who moved back to the Department to fill in after Crowley's sudden departure. Hammer comes directly from a stint in the Obama White House. Nuland will, therefore, only take over the meet-greet-and brief-the-media duties. But wait. . .
There’s that peculiar relationship with Hillary’s Seventh Floor. As Al Kamen points out, unlike previous press secretaries, P.J. Crowley did not travel with the Secretary. Instead Phillipe Reines, a political appointee known for his close proximity to Hillary, has been handling the traveling press on all those Red Eye Specials. There’s no reason to believe he will not continue to do so.
So unless I’ve got it wrong, a single position under previous administrations will soon turn into a troika under Hillary Clinton. Does this make either administrative or budgetary sense in days of fiscal austerity?
Separating the spokesman’s work from running the Public Affairs Bureau –as inconsequential as it is - has merit. I’ve long thought the combined tasks too much for a single individual. But that was when the person also handled the traveling press on trips with the Secretary. Take away those frequent trips and the relationships developed on them and I have to wonder whether a media troika is really necessary. Couldn’t and shouldn’t Reines just take over the press briefing job full time?
Beyond that, however, I have to wonder whether Hillary really knows what she’s getting into by putting Nuland in that position. Should she be taking Ms. Nuland based, apparently, on Talbott’s word? Shouldn’t the State Department Spokesperson have the absolute confidence of and close proximity to the Secretary that Reines apparently does. Or given Reines' position and access will Nuland become a fifth wheel?
I’m beginning to wonder, if this new position is even necessary regardless of whether Nuland is really the best candidate for the job. Whatever it may be.