Nikki Haley is one lucky Trump appointee.
Sure, sure, it’s a great honor to be a public servant, especially when you’re way up at the top. But the GOP wastes no love on the United Nations; Republican presidents can take years to realize that it can prove pretty useful every once in a while.
So at this point in other administrations, Nikki Haley might have already disappeared from public view despite her flashy title as permanent representative of the United States of America to the UN. In Trump’s White House, by now she might have simply melted into the miasma of other catastrophic appointees (Betsy DeVos, Jeff Sessions, Wilbur Ross. . . . ), more fodder for late-night TV hosts in search of monologue material.
Instead, Haley has stood out a bit in a Cabinet of contemptibles because of the line she has discreetly drawn between herself and the District of Columbia. She seems to share Trump’s brashness and his desire to shake things up. Unlike others in the Cabinet, she did not enter government to destroy the job she now holds. She does not elbow world leaders out of the way or regularly insult them. She does not appear to be out to end any program ever touched by Barack Obama.
But let’s not fool ourselves. She had no experience in foreign policy before her appointment. She came to power in South Carolina with help from the Tea Party. She lacks many of the basic skills and sensibilities of a diplomat. She regularly makes big mistakes in tone and substance but does not seem to care. Rather than see the UN as a mechanism for world betterment, she more likely sees it as glamorous work and a stepping stone in a long political career later.
Haley’s fellow ambassadors and the UN community are still terrified of the damage she could inflict on the world order if she either screwed up big or put her mind to it — or both, should she hang on as ambassador. In fact, she rarely shows up at UN Security Council meetings. When she does, she might detour from the session’s topic, say, on the Palestine and Israeli conflict, to blast away at Hezbollah, saying the UN — as if it were one person — is unable to utter the group’s name.
But what we’ve got is a top US appointee who is simply not that far out. Her main goal, like that of many of her predecessors, is to use her UN perch to regularly promote both her work — in her case, bleeding UN peacekeeping budgets and stopping the Israel-bashing — and her personal brand. Besides addressing a highly selective list of international problems, she regularly tweets about a favorite pop song, an inspirational religious message and the view out her Manhattan window (in a high-rise next to Trump World Tower, near the UN), her husband, her children or her dog.
A flattering picture of the ambassador herself, wearing tasteful business attire and flashing a big smile, accompanies every tweet, whether personal or official. But she wants there to be no mistake: she is tough! She boasted to a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March that she wore high heels at the UN, but “it’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because if I see something wrong we are going to kick ’em every single time.”
Her tweets, while not as whacked out as the president’s, can nonetheless give one pause. “And this just happened. . . #Starstruck #Bono #DidIEvenMakeSense,” Haley posted on June 21, above a picture showing her gazing dizzily across a desk at Bono, her hand over her heart.
“Just 5 months into our time here, we’ve cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we’re only getting started,” she bragged to much astonishment on June 28. Was this a tweet for the other 192 members of the UN? Or for her personal fan clubs in Washington and South Carolina?
But what is most striking about her job performance seven months in is the apparent freedom she seems to enjoy from administration doctrine. Her stands often differ from Trump’s, and she does not hesitate to speak out on matters on which he or Tillerson, the president’s bizarrely reclusive secretary of state, have maintained silence or expressed a different view.
She is not afraid to step over the line. “This is not the time for us to talk about freezing or dialogue with North Korea,” Haley told reporters after a March 8 Security Council meeting on the Korea crisis. “I can tell you we’re not ruling anything out, and we’re considering every option,” she said, describing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “not rational.”
Was her statement a sign that US bombers might soon be striking North Korea or that Kim would be assassinated? (Apparently not, so far.) This rhetoric might have worked in a US political campaign, but here it was ill-advised saber-rattling, aggressive and out of sync with other administration voices.
Is it smart for Haley to make her own foreign policy on the fly? Perhaps, but only if she’s better at it than Tillerson, Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis. On April 9, Haley announced that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had to go before there could be peace and stability in the country.
Two days later, Mattis said US strategy was not aimed at regime change.
On another foreign-policy hot spot she also sounded out of touch. “We cannot trust Russia. We should never trust Russia,” Haley said unequivocally during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “Everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections,” she told CNN on July 8, just as her boss was saying, “Nobody really knows.”
Haley occasionally gives lip service to human rights, as Trump shows no interest in the subject. And she appears to keep an eye out for a few crises that fly below the radar back in the Capitol. On July 11, her deputy, Michele Sison, demanded before the Security Council that the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s election commission immediately set the date of the next election and thus end an international impasse over President Joseph Kabila’s seemingly endless presidency.
Where did that policy come from? Who knows? The posts of assistant secretary of state for African affairs and ambassador to Congo are both vacant.
Haley seems flattered by her privileged status. She stunned members of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee by acknowledging, during a June 28 hearing on US-UN relations, that she rarely speaks with Trump or Tillerson.
The president “has given me a lot of leeway to just say what I think and interpret what he thinks,” Haley said in a broadcast interview on April 13. “I’m a strong voice by nature. I’m sometimes a bull in a china shop. And, you know, he allows me to do that. . . . He has not complained.”
Veteran UN watchers were initially shocked to learn that Trump’s pick for the top UN job had no diplomatic experience and was a member of the Tea Party while serving as South Carolina governor from 2011 to 2017. The Tea Party is no friend of the UN.
But Haley’s path to Turtle Bay was clearly guided more by strong political skills than a gift for foreign relations. She won statewide office in South Carolina, a very conservative state known for a lethal brand of dirty politics, despite her gender and her Sikh heritage. (She converted to Christianity when she married Michael Haley in 1996.)
Throughout her political career, there has been steady speculation about Haley’s ambitions for higher office. After stirring vice presidential rumors in 2012 and 2016, she is now rumored to have an eye on Tillerson’s job, should he do a “Rexit” and leave soon, fed up with being sidelined by Trump advisers in the White House. For Haley, there is also talk of an eventual run for the US Senate, the vice presidency or even the White House, ambitions she denies.
This has all triggered talk in the UN community about how she should be treated by administration critics. Should those worried about endless Trump foreign policy disasters to come relentlessly criticize Haley, along the lines of education activists piling on Betsy DeVos? Or should they give her some space, conceding she is not the worst nightmare they have to deal with?
It may all come down to a familiar question: Is the glass half full, or is there anything in the glass at all?
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.