WASHINGTON, JANUARY 8—President-elect Biden announced a number of new additions to his national security team this week. As with his earlier choices, these names are worth considering for what they tell us about the direction of national security for the next four years.
It was widely reported that Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs under Barack Obama and John Kerry, will receive a promotion and become the department’s No. 2 under Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice to serve as secretary of state. Sherman was widely and rightfully hailed for her role as the lead American negotiator of the Iran nuclear accord. Biden also announced his plan to name Jon Finer, the former head of policy planning at State, as deputy national security adviser. These are, by the low standards set by the Biden transition, sensible appointments. The same however, cannot be said for Biden’s nominee for Sherman’s old job, undersecretary for political affairs. We come now to the infamous Victoria Nuland.
Nuland has had a long and storied career in the foreign service, and for a long time she was viewed with something like reverence among career officers for her ability to rapidly advance up through the ranks at a relatively young age. Nuland served as U.S. ambassador to NATO and later was national security adviser to Vice–President Dick Cheney. After that, Nuland found herself “on the outs” at the State Department during the early Obama years. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had other plans for Nuland, the well-connected wife of the neoconservative publicist Robert Kagan. Clinton, to the astonishment of many of the political appointees in Clinton's orbit, plucked Nuland from the obscurity of her position at the Naval War College to become her spokeswoman.
This was the road back to influence and Nuland traveled it, quickly ascending to the position of assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs. It is from that post that she oversaw U.S. efforts to encourage a street coup in Kiev—going so far as to hand out cookies to antigovernment protesters alongside the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Geoffrey Pyatt. The February 2014 coup, undertaken by an alliance of pro–Western liberalizers and hardline anti–Semitic militants, resulted not in a more peaceful order, but in a civil war (in which Russia and NATO funded and armed their proxies). More than 10,000 lives were lost in that conflict, well over a million people displaced from the Russophone east. Nuland became an unwitting symbol of American heavy-handedness in the region when a call between her and Pyatt leaked. In it they were revealed to be hand-picking personnel for the new government in Ukraine. What would the E.U. think? “Fuck the E.U.,” exclaimed Nuland, a diplomat to the marrow.
After the coup—violent and unnecessary, given that Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president, had agreed to an early, peaceful transition at the ballot box—Nuland bragged thus at a conference sponsored by Chevron that: “Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the United States has supported Ukrainians as they build democratic skills and institutions, as they promote civic participation and good governance . . . We’ve invested over $5 billion to assist Ukraine in these and other goals that will ensure a secure and prosperous and democratic Ukraine.”
In the years since the 2014 coup, we have “invested” a great deal more money into Ukraine—for questionable returns. But the affair does not seem to have clouded Nuland's career prospects. Smart and thoroughly networked, she, like many of her fellow neocons, seems to move from strength to strength in this town, never held to account for the damage they’ve caused in one or another context.
Her arrival among Biden’s national security people is the worst news we have had so far as to the likely policies the new administration will develop and execute.
After her stint in the State department ended—Nuland was replaced in the early Trump years by the woefully unqualified neocon operative A. Wes Mitchell—she took up what one can only assume were lucrative positions on the other side of the revolving door. At the Center for a New American Security, she served as CEO. She also worked at the Boston Consulting Group and the Albright Stonebridge Group. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sherman, her future boss, hails from the latter.
Nuland views on Russia and European affairs are well known. Less known, however, are her views on America’s role in the Middle East. Let’s hope that changes: In an article in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Nuland lamented that the U.S., under Trump, “made both Putin’s and Assad’s lives easier by neutralizing a shared threat, the Islamic State, or ISIS.” Like many cheerleaders for regime change in Damascus, Nuland actually seems to believe that the Islamist terrorists who want to revive the caliphate are preferable to Assad. On both moral and national security grounds, this view should be seen for what it is: It is repugnant.
As Biden’s undersecretary of political affairs, Nuland will have immense influence over policy and personnel. Progressives in Congress and their partners in the media, in the think tank world, and among grassroots activists should join forces with the growing caucus of anti-interventionist Republicans on the Hill and vigorously oppose this nomination.