Why Benghazi-fixated Republicans may be all right with Victoria Nuland's promotion

The outgoing State Department spokeswoman has been under partisan fire for her role in shaping the Benghazi talking points

Victoria Nuland's nomination received a rather surprising backing from Sen. John McCain.
(Image credit: Corbis/REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski)

The Republican fascination with the Benghazi talking points — the unclassified information the Obama administration and CIA agreed on for lawmakers to cite after the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in the Libyan city — has not abated.

On Tuesday, House oversight committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) announced he would subpoena more "documents related to the Benghazi talking points" that he claims are "crucial to the committee's investigation." Specifically, Issa said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, he wants answers to "outstanding questions about who at the State Department, other than spokesperson Victoria Nuland, expressed reservations about certain aspects of the talking points."

Considering Issa's continued inquiry, President Obama's nomination of Nuland to be assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs last week — a pretty big promotion, and one that requires Senate confirmation — seemed like a pretty in-your-face move. Senate Republicans, led by Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), had derailed the potential nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice — who used the talking points in a series of national TV appearances — for secretary of state, for example.

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The day before Obama nominated Nuland for her new job, McCain rejected a White House official's suggestion that Republicans owe Rice an apology, and Graham said that instead of an apology, Rice should be given a subpoena to explain why she repeated the misleading talking points on national TV. It was something of a surprise, then, when McCain and Graham issued this statement about Nuland's nomination:

Ambassador Victoria Nuland has a long and distinguished record of service to our nation in both Republican and Democrat Administrations. 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.

That statement "lends crucial support to Nuland" before her Senate confirmation hearing, says John Hudson at Foreign Policy. After all, "no two lawmakers have thrown more rhetorical grenades at the Obama administration for what [McCain and Graham] call a concerted 'cover-up' of what happened in Benghazi." But at the same time, Hudson notes, "McCain's support doesn't exactly come out of nowhere":

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. [Foreign Policy]

Personal relationships explain some of the difference in treatment between Rice and Nuland, says Mark Landler in The New York Times, but "politics looms above all." In many ways, the two women "had parallel experiences with Benghazi," Landler says: "Neither was involved in security decisions surrounding the American mission," and both became involved later, through the talking points. But Nuland has strong ties to Republicans, Rice has strong ties to Democrats, and it's easier to shoot the messenger, he adds.

"Susan Rice was exposed because at a critical moment, she was out there with a narrative about President Obama's foreign policy that the Republicans couldn't abide," former diplomat Aaron David Miller tells The New York Times. "Toria was buried in the internal bureaucratic ticktock," Miller said, using Nuland's nickname. "She is also someone who has very good contacts across the aisle, and around Washington. Susan fits the Republican anti-Obama narrative; Toria does not."

The Times asked Sen. Graham to explain why Nuland was a fine pick but Rice is toxic. "That's a good question," he responded. Nuland is "going to have to explain the role she played," but there is a difference between "protecting your bureaucratic turf," as Nuland was doing, and making misleading statements to the American people, he said.

But the support of two Republican lawmakers, even influential senators on national security, doesn't mean Nuland won't face a tough confirmation fight. The Republican base may not be as forgiving — "I can't take any more of McCain's and Graham's groveling" over Obama's "in-your-face Nuland nomination," says Tom Blumer at NewsBusters; it looks like "loyal soldiers must be rewarded for protecting the castle," says Townhall's Guy Benson. "This move extends another middle finger to House investigators and the families of the Benghazi dead."

And some GOP senators, including Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), are openly skeptical about the promotion, too:

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"McCain's support is particularly important given his placement on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which gets the first crack at State Department appointees," says Foreign Policy's Hudson.

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? [Foreign Policy]

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.