The Inconsequential Nikki Haley
We haven’t heard much from Nikki Haley since she departed the Trump administration after a 21-month stint. The former governor of South Carolina, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Republican Party darling has kept her cards close to her chest. Everyone, it seems, knows she will eventually run for president. Haley probably knows that too: she’s just too smart to say it out loud.
Yet over the last several days, the savior of the GOP establishment has broken her silence with a new memoir of her time in the administration and a round of rapid-fire media interviews. Most who have followed her career understand that Haley has shrewd political instincts. But the one-time ambassador isn’t doing herself any favors by going on national television and throwing her former colleagues under the bus. Nor is she fooling anybody with her holier-than-thou attitude towards President Trump, who, for all his support within the Republican Party, is perhaps the most divisive chief executive the United States has had in the contemporary era.
Her messaging confirms what many have long suspected: Nikki Haley is a human weathervane, trying to ingratiate herself to the boss (she knows Trump will remain a popular figure within Republican politics for years to come) while at the same time distancing herself from his most controversial actions. And, of course, it wouldn’t be good, old-fashioned Washington gunslinging if she didn’t pin the blame on somebody else. In this case, it was former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former White House chief of staff John Kelly—portrayed by Haley as duplicitous snakes who sought to undermine the president behind his back.
Haley’s penchant for tearing down her former coworkers is rivaled only by her sense of self-importance. By all indications, she truly believes she is on the right side of history, dutifully following the orders of the boss down to the last detail and standing up for what she believes is in the best interests of the American people. One can take serious issue with her glowing assessment of the Trump administration’s foreign policy—its approach to Iran, for instance, has been a total and complete dumpster fire that nearly set the stage for a shooting war in the Persian Gulf last summer. Many will also have a difficult time disagreeing that Haley’s tenure at the United Nations was a lackadaisical and ineffective affair. If there were any major concrete achievements during her nearly two years at the Security Council, they are very hard to pin down.
Diplomats are by trade highly meticulous, detail-oriented, and hard-nosed. They can also be tough as nails, particularly when the absence of diplomacy can lead to a full-blown conflict. Admittedly, Haley could be thick-skinned. She prided herself on talking down to the United Nations on everything thing from its bloated bureaucracy and runaway spending to the membership of its Human Rights Council. As Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group wrote in Politico, Haley deserves credit on her work related to Africa, where she successfully haggled with the Chinese and persuaded Beijing to sign up to an arms embargo on South Sudan.
But whereas many U.S. ambassadors in Turtle Bay are professionals, Haley seemed more like somebody who was merely playing the part. She’s hardly the first over-the-top public figure who’s posed for the cameras. But as the months went by, you got the sense that she was more interested in making a name for herself than getting results. Who can forget her appearance at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in December 2017, where she delivered a speech alongside remnants of an Iranian-manufactured missile to stress her anti-Iran credentials? Or when she requested an open Security Council meeting on Tehran’s squelching of countrywide demonstrations in order to reiterate to the world for the umpteenth time that Washington thought the Iranian nuclear deal was the worst agreement possible? Or when she went on national television to explain that it was still a U.S. national security priority to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, despite claiming a week earlier that regime change in Damascus was no longer an objective? Each of these was a rookie mistake that exposed her to criticism and contributed to the already prevalent belief that the Trump administration was an unwieldy machine going in a million different directions at once.
Ultimately, U.N. ambassadors are judged by what they achieve. And on this score, Haley was largely inconsequential. For all the time she spent grandstanding on Iran, there was precious little she accomplished in terms of bringing America’s traditional European allies closer to the U.S. position. On the Iran nuclear agreement specifically, Britain, France, and Germany were more likely to side with Moscow and Beijing than Washington. Haley did succeed in pushing and passing more stringent Security Council sanctions on North Korea, but those same sanctions also exacerbated that country’s dire humanitarian situation by adding a labyrinth of complicated rules and regulations for even the simplest aid requests. U.S. withdrawal from the Human Rights Council may have been good public relations for the very voters Haley will one day court, but it also deprived the United States of an opportunity to participate in that forum and impact the debate. And while a $285 million reduction in the U.N. budget may have seemed like a lot of cash, the campaign to streamline decision-making, reduce overhead, and hold U.N. spending decisions accountable will be a recurring problem far into the future.
Nikki Haley’s supporters will view all of this as an unwarranted attack on her credibility and acumen. She was, after all, in a very unique situation. By her own telling, the infighting within the administration hindered her work in New York. She had a frosty relationship with Secretary of State Tillerson, which is never good for government unity. She was also sometimes caught off-guard by a president back in Washington who changed his mind regularly.
But as she seeks to reenter politics and polishes her record, it is only fair to scrutinize her time as America’s top diplomat at the world’s most renowned multilateral organization. Haley may think Washington is “toxic,” “political,” and “trashy” now, but in a few years’ time, none of us should be shocked to see the former governor hobnobbing with donors, sounding out consultants, and preparing for a presidential campaign of her own. Given the way she’s operated over the last week, it would be more shocking if she decided to stay out of the political dogfight.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The American Conservative.