The Cable

McCain and Graham stick their necks out for Victoria Nuland

Ahead of what many expect to be a contentious confirmation hearing for the next assistant secretary of state for Europe, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) gave a major boost to Obama appointee Victoria Nuland on Friday.

"Ambassador Victoria Nuland has a long and distinguished record of service to our nation in both Republican and Democrat Administrations," the senators said in a statement. "She is knowledgeable and well-versed on the major foreign policy issues as well as respected by foreign policy experts in both parties. We look forward to her upcoming confirmation hearings in the United States Senate."

The statement lends crucial support to Nuland, who has come under fire from GOP lawmakers for her role in the editing of administration talking points in the immediate aftermath of last year's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

In the last six months, no two lawmakers have thrown more rhetorical grenades at the Obama administration for what they call a concerted "cover-up" of what happened in Benghazi. Some Republicans have included Nuland in that alleged cover up for her recommendations that the group responsible for the attack, Ansar al-Sharia, be removed from the talking points given to members of Congress and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. But Graham and McCain don't appear to be in the blame-Nuland camp.

As The Cable noted earlier, Nuland was always something of an awkward GOP target given her work as an aide for Vice President Dick Cheney from 2003 to 2005 and her marriage to prominent neoconservative writer Robert Kagan, an advisor to Mitt Romney during his failed presidential bid. 

McCain's support doesn't exactly come out nowhere.

Earlier this month, he tweeted out a story by the Washington Post's neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, who absolved Nuland of wrongdoing in the talking point scandal: "It is not the communications people who bear any responsibility for the scrubbing that went on over the weekend," wrote Rubin.

McCain's support is particularly important given his placement on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which gets the first crack at State Department appointees. Other Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee remained mum about her nomination, though a committee source speaking to The Cable said there is "very little chance" the nomination won't trigger some sort of fight. The question now is, will McCain's and Graham's support blunt the concerns of the rest of their GOP colleagues?


The Cable

Obama taps Victoria Nuland for assistant secretary

The White House on Thursday nominated Victoria Nuland to be the next assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, to replace Philip Gordon, who was appointed as Middle East coordinator for the National Security Council.

The promotion of Nuland, a career Foreign Service officer with 29 years of experience at the State Department, comes just after Republican-led criticism of her role in the editing of the Obama administration's talking points on Benghazi seems to have died down.

Nuland, who has long experience working on post-Soviet issues, including as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2005-2008, was the department's chief spokesperson at the time of the attacks.

In defiance of those critics, the president's nomination signals a doubling-down on his view that the Benghazi furor amounts to a "political circus" led by partisan interests. "There's no 'there' there," Obama told reporters last week.

In the days after the assault on Benghazi, Nuland represented the State Department's interests in the drafting of talking points. She objected to identifying the terrorist group believed to have carried out the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, as well as the acknowledgement of CIA warnings about extremist threats in Libya.

While Republicans accused Nuland of watering down the role of terrorists for political reasons, an intelligence official familiar with the drafting of the talking points told The Cable that removing the name of Ansar al-Sharia was supported by the CIA as well. "It is important to take care not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages," the official said.

Following the announcement, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is tasked with confirming her nomination, remained mum on her nomination, though a committee source speaking to The Cable said there is "very little chance" the nomination won't trigger a fight.

Nuland, however, is something of an awkward target for Republicans. From 2003 to 2005, she served as principal deputy national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Her husband is prominent neoconservative writer Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century and an advisor to Mitt Romney's failed presidential bid.

"She has enjoyed a very bipartisan career," an administration official told The Cable. "She's worked well with right, left and center, and we look forward to her continuing in that spirit."

"She knows the territory really well," Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former boss of Nuland when he served as deputy secretary of state, told The Cable. "She knows Europe in terms of the following beverages: stout, beer, German ale, white wine , red wine, Slivovitz, and vodka ... she goes right across the whole continent ... Victoria is one of the best human beings and certainly one of the best Foreign Service officers I've ever known."

The administration's unwavering support of Nuland may bode well for U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, who's in line for a promotion to national security advisor after also coming under fire for her role in delivering the Benghazi talking points. Rice's appointment, though not yet announced, is widely believed to be in the works.