Nikki Haley: Trump’s Baghdad Bob
“She was picked for UN Ambassador for one reason,” explained a senior GOP political consultant to me, reacting to the news that Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, had just resigned from the Trump administration. “She was supposed to present a feminine, or supposedly softer version of Trump’s America First message. Instead she became the administration’s national security sledgehammer.”
“Haley was a great spokesperson for the administration; in fact, she was great at parroting whatever lines Trump wanted her to deliver,” the consultant continued. “But for anyone who has ever interacted with her, one thing became very clear. The second she left the land of talking points, any time she was asked to discuss any issue in any depth, it was apparent there was nothing there. And that is not what we need as ambassador at the UN.”
Perhaps I can come up with a better description of Nikki Haley. She was Donald Trump’s very own “Baghdad Bob,” the propaganda chief under Saddam Hussein who appeared on TV during the 2003 Iraq invasion and said anything the regime wanted, no matter how inflammatory or wrong. While Haley was never forced to claim anything so preposterous as that Saddam’s Republican Guard was winning a war against a superpower, her ability to trump even Trump in crazy talk was a rare talent—and not a welcome one.
That was my problem with the ambassador. Not that she did a bad job, not that she was a terrible representative of our nation’s interests, but simply that she lacked of the experience and natural abilities needed in such a role. Spitting back Trumpian rhetoric is not enough to be credible on the world’s stage. It would be like asking me to become a plumber: sure, I could figure it out at some point, but I would leave behind quite a few clogged toilets and busted faucets along the way.
Haley left behind some busted faucets, that’s for sure. If she did make any sort of major impression, it was thanks to her tough talk on North Korea and Iran. But it was her hard-hitting rhetoric leveled at the Kim regime that stuck out the most. In an almost comical attempt to parrot the words of President Trump, who in early September said at the UN that America “has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” Haley stated in November that “if war comes, make no mistake, the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”
That’s just for starters. There were also the clear missteps, when we could see her lack of expertise and preparation at work. In a primetime interview with Fox News nighttime anchor Martha MacCallum, Haley was asked about the 2018 Olympics and whether U.S. athletes would participate. North Korea experts knew this was the question that would have to be asked, and were keen to see what Haley would have to say.
She blew it, big time. The interview, conducted in January, at a time when some thought a war with the Kim regime was still very possible, drove headlines the world over, as Haley said she would not commit to U.S. citizens participating, stating, “there’s an open question.” MacCallum pounced on Twitter, and rightly so, writing that “Amb. Nikki Haley not certain we should send our athletes to the Olympics. Will depend on NK situation.”
Now, to be fair to Haley, the remarks were more qualified than the press made them out to be. Still, they were confusing to say the least, and show that she was not ready for what was an obvious question. In fact, Haley seemed to stumble, adding, “I have not heard anything about that” and “I do know in the talks that we have—whether it’s Jerusalem or North Korea—it’s about, how do we protect the U.S. citizens in the area?”
What? As another Republican put it to me just a day later: “She had no idea what the hell she was talking about.”
Haley even scared some very senior diplomats, who wondered exactly what the administration was planning if Washington would not send its citizens or athletes to the Olympics. “Is America getting ready to attack North Korea? Is that where this is headed?” asked a senior diplomat here in Washington minutes after the interview was over.
I could go on, but I think you get my point. President Trump can do far better than Haley.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm The National Interest. Previously, he led the foreign policy communications efforts of the Heritage Foundation, and served as editor-in-chief of The Diplomat and as a fellow at CSIS:PACNET. The views expressed are his own.