Nikki Haley and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

(With apologies to Judith Viorst.)

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

Last Thursday, Haley delivered a highly publicized speech in front of some missile debris and other captured weapons at an air force base outside of Washington, DC. The stunt was meant to showcase Iranian interference in the ongoing war in Yemen, but Haley’s promise to provide “concrete evidence” to back up her claims fell flat.

Ambassador Haley followed that up this week with a blustery performance at the United Nations in New York in which she tried to defend the Trump administration’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — along with the decision to relocate the American embassy there — in the face of widespread global criticism. The coup de grace came when Haley tried to claim victory in the wake of a 128-9 General Assembly vote condemning the American decree on Jerusalem. In her statement of thanks to the countries that did not “[fall] to the irresponsible ways of the UN,” Haley counted the countries that abstained as well as those who did not show up to vote among those who supported the US position. It was a laughable and transparently desperate attempt to save face for a boss whose sole obsession is “winning.”

It’s hard to see what Haley gets out of this job. As Reza Marashi wrote at Lobelog this week, she’s obviously not very good at it. To be fair, this critique applies to a lot, if not all, of the people serving in this administration. Still, Haley’s missteps seem especially comical.

Part of the problem for Haley is that her screwups aren’t confined to American soil. The UN exists on the world stage, and everything she does there gets scrutinized by the global community. While Trump and most of his cabinet officials can rely on Fox News and other American conservative media outlets to create a “Fair and Balanced” portrayal of an alternate reality at home, the international media are not nearly as accommodating. In the case of the recent UN vote, Israel was probably the only country with major media outlets echoing Haley’s claim of moral victory, but even that proved challenging. Israel Hayom, the free paper owned by right-wing billionaire and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, really had to strain to write an honest headline that sounded even somewhat victorious: “An achievement to Israel: 35 countries abstained at the UN.”

I didn’t bother to check the headlines in Micronesia.

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Haley, like many of her colleagues, is sacrificing her reputation on the altar of this presidency for dubious purposes. Her stunt speech in front of the missile debris recalled the infamous February 2003 presentation by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, when the former four-star general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued the case for war with Iraq — replete with props — in front of the UN Security Council. How did that turn out again? Oh, right.

At least for Powell the stakes were clear. The Bush administration was asking him to deploy his sterling reputation to justify an invasion of Iraq on false pretenses. For Haley, it’s not readily apparent what she or the administration really wants in the Middle East. On Iran, their actions seem to be pointing toward increased confrontation of some kind, perhaps even war, but there’s no obvious strategic objective (which of course is part of the problem). The Jerusalem move, both in substance and timing, is even more of a headscratcher. Depending on the eventual outcome of these issues, the biggest difference between Haley’s and Powell’s speeches may end up being that Haley did not have much of a reputation to sacrifice when she decided to mortgage her credibility for her boss.

There may be a simpler explanation for all this: money. Haley has long been a darling of the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party. Even before the 2016 election, she was raking in donations as the Governor of South Carolina from big-name conservatives such as the aforementioned Adelson. Between May and June 2016, the Las Vegas billionaire contributed $250,000 to Haley’s A New Day fund. If Haley has any further political ambitions after this administration, she will no doubt be reliant on additional funding from this cohort. Coupled with the huge sums Adelson gave to Trump, it’s reasonable to interpret these policy pronouncements as a form of performative repayment for their donors’ generosity.

In spite of her lack of success, there have been rumblings in the past about how Trump was so pleased with Haley’s job performance that he was considering her as a replacement for his beleaguered Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, but that is apparently off the table. The most recent rumors out of the White House hint at CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the next in line for the State post, with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton as his possible replacement at the Agency.

This is not to say that Haley has fallen out of favor with the President. Unlike many other Trump cabinet officials, Haley has not been made to suffer her boss’s ridicule as a result of her prominent failures. I suspect that Haley’s perceived aura of “toughness” is one of the reasons she persists in this job. Trump’s penchant for style over substance means that as long as Haley maintains her fierce and intimidating aesthetic on Twitter and Fox News, she’ll likely succeed in maintaining her current position for the foreseeable future.

Before the General Assembly vote on Jerusalem, Haley warned UN members that the Trump administration would be “taking names” of how countries voted on the resolution. We all assumed it was because the Trump administration would seek to penalize those who dared to voice opposition. Trump himself even suggested the possibility that the U.S. would cut off foreign aid to anyone who voted in favor of the resolution. Now, it seems, there may have been a different reason. On Friday afternoon, Ambassador Haley sent out party invites to all those who voted against the resolution, abstained, or simply failed to show up.

Really puts a different spin on “let them eat cake.”

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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