Nikki Haley is the most popular member of Donald Trump’s national security team, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, which found that 63 percent of voters approve of the job she is doing as United States ambassador to the United Nations. Just 17 percent disapprove. (Only 39 percent approved of Trump’s performance, the poll found.)
The survey came out on April 25, so it most likely caught voters focusing on the administration’s bombing of Syria over chemical weapons and developing plans for a summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, rather than on Trump’s decision last week to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement.
But it still has to make you wonder how Haley has been able to preserve her Teflon coating despite her role as the administration’s biggest public cheerleader for the push to withdraw from the Iran deal.
“The President absolutely made the right decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal,” Haley insisted on May 8, after the president announced his decision. “This was a terrible deal that only allowed Iran’s bad international conduct to worsen. We must never allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, and we must resist their support for terrorism that continues to threaten America and our allies.”
Her statement is just so wrong in so many ways. Many of America’s allies might agree that there is a need to resist Iranian support for terrorism. But almost none of them believe that the nuclear deal was “terrible,” or responsible for worsening Iran’s international conduct. On the other hand, there is just about universal agreement that it was absolutely responsible for preventing Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.
You can almost understand Trump having to go on the warpath against the deal after denouncing it during his presidential campaign. He relentlessly attacked anything and everything Obama, particularly if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t like it. Plus Trump remains a shallow neophyte in the world of diplomacy. And, of course, he was not alone in arguing that Washington needed to pull out of the nuclear deal. Backing him, among others, were his new national security adviser, John Bolton; his new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Bolton probably owes his job to his enduring hard-line take on Iran, having long argued that Israel, with US support, should destroy Iran’s path to nuclear arms even before it can get there, through a pre-emptive attack. Netanyahu proposed doing so while Obama was still in the White House, before the nuclear deal could take effect, but Obama scotched the idea.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, for its part, is ready to embrace the soaring oil prices that will most likely result from the reimposition of US sanctions on Tehran. Some other states in the conflict-riven neighborhood, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have joined Israel and Saudi Arabia in siding with Trump on the nuclear deal.
Regardless, Haley has no excuse. Whatever her diplomatic and political skills, there can be no argument that they are stronger than the president’s. She must realize at some level that it makes no sense to pull out of an agreement that prevents Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons in order to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran may be a terrible international actor in many other ways — Obama on May 8 called Tehran a “dangerous regime” in defending the deal reached by his administration in 2015.
But despite what Haley insists, the nuclear deal “was never intended to solve all of our problems with Iran,” Obama added. “We were clear-eyed that Iran engages in destabilizing behavior — including support for terrorism, and threats toward Israel and its neighbors. But that’s precisely why it was so important that we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Every aspect of Iranian behavior that is troubling is far more dangerous if their nuclear program is unconstrained.”
Obama is right. The US withdrawal has deeply undermined the international community’s ability to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. It has stiffed the many international supporters of the agreement, including the UN Security Council and European Union, which embraced the deal, and the agreement’s five other major power signers, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. It has greatly increased the risk of widespread economic disruption and enduring instability in the Middle East and elsewhere.
At the same time, it has greatly increased pressure on Iran’s leaders to resume the pursuit of nuclear weapons, as they have threatened, should the agreement fall apart. And if that occurs, Israel is poised to invade Iran, with US and Saudi support. Preliminary skirmishes between Israel and Iran have already begun.
While Bolton publicly displayed his colors on Iran long before Haley even turned up on the international scene, Haley was quick to get out of the starting gate. She went to the White House in July 2017 to ask Trump to let her begin laying the groundwork for a declaration that Iran was violating the agreement, according to Politico, which dubbed the ambassador the president’s “Iran whisperer.”
At the time, her stance pitted her against then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis. By this May, Pompeo, a superhawk on Iran, had replaced Tillerson while Mattis, sensing a decision had been made, sat out the debate.
But Bolton had been pushing from the sidelines all along. When the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, barred him from contacting Trump, Bolton, a private citizen in late August 2017, published his plan for getting Washington out of the Iran deal in The National Review and urged Haley to use her inside job to push the president on his behalf. Among the steps outlined in Bolton’s plan were “Expedite delivery of bunker-buster bombs” and “providing F-35s to Israel.”
Bolton, writing in an opinion piece in The Washington Post shortly after Trump’s May 8 decision was announced, said the president’s action “reversed an ill-advised and dangerous policy and set us on a new course that will address the aggressive and hostile behavior of our enemies, while enhancing our ties with partners and allies.” He failed to spell out that his use of the terms “partners” and “allies” had taken on new and diminished meanings, apparently referring only to Israel.
“While some believe that Israel is an irritant that upsets the natural balance of power in the Middle East and that Israel’s influence should be constrained, this president sees the enormous benefits the United States has reaped from our sustained relationship with Israel, as well as the opportunity to leverage this investment into greater cooperation to the benefit of both nations,” Bolton wrote.
Britain? France? Germany? The European Union? NATO? Australia? Japan? Turkey? Russia? China? Sorry, what were those names again? To further quote Bolton, “While the future remains uncertain and challenging, one thing we know for sure is that the president will always put America First.”
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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.