Nikki Haley’s Mission Accomplished Moment

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by Derek Davison

On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump announced that his United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, was resigning and will leave the administration at the end of 2018.

Haley’s departure came as a surprise. Most high-profile departures from the Trump administration have been preceded by long periods of public discord with the president or embarrassing revelations about personal and/or official misconduct, but that’s not true in Haley’s case. As a result, Haley’s resignation set off speculation that she might be planning a 2020 primary run against Trump, speculation that she seemingly put to rest on Tuesday when she pledged to campaign for Trump’s reelection.

Other speculation revolved around a letter sent by the anti-corruption watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to the State Department inspector general’s office on Monday, requesting an investigation into Haley’s acceptance of “seven free flights on luxury private aircraft from three South Carolina businessmen” in 2017. Many political reporters and pundits even took to social media to speculate that Haley was the person behind last month’s anonymous Trump-criticizing New York Times op-ed and that she’d been fired as a result, even though Haley penned a response to that op-ed in the Washington Post two days after it appeared. Haley may also have seen the writing on the wall—Trump has become known for turning on staffers suddenly, and Haley did recently commit something of a misstep in the UN Security Council on Trump’s behalf.

But in truth, the midway point of Trump’s first term is a good place for Haley to exit the administration. Though they presumably do not include a presidential run in 2020, Haley’s ambitions aim toward the White House. Haley has been a high-profile UN ambassador, but that position is not traditionally a great perch from which to pursue higher office. Haley was to some extent passed over when Trump opted to replace ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo instead of her back in April, and Haley may have decided that her opportunities for further advancement within the administration had been closed off.

Haley can now raise her profile outside of the Trump administration and away from Trump. She can make herself a fixture on cable news or perhaps even make her way into the Senate if, as has been widely speculated, Trump replaces Attorney General Jeff Sessions with current South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham after the midterms. Haley’s distance from Trump could be crucial to her political future. For one thing, if Trump’s political fortunes take a downturn, hers won’t necessarily follow suit. For another, Haley will be exiting the administration in time to avoid overseeing the worst effects of the disastrous foreign policy she’s helped Trump implement. But with her departure on the horizon, let’s take stock of what she’s “accomplished” in her two years at the United Nations.

Trashing the Place

By all rights, Haley’s lasting legacy as U.S. ambassador to the UN should be the damage she caused to the institution to which she was assigned. Haley arrived at the UN with a mandate from Trump and the rest of the “Make American Great Again” crowd, who despise the UN as perhaps the most prominent symbol of the “globalism” they reject in favor of xenophobic nationalism, to cripple the UN’s effectiveness as an international institution. Toward that end she’s done a considerable amount of work, mostly around the Israel-Palestine issue.

Last October, the Trump administration formalized a decision the Obama administration made in 2011 to cut off funding for the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) over that body’s decision to admit Palestine as a member. To some degree the Obama administration’s hands were tied by a U.S. law that requires the government to stop funding any international institution that admits Palestine. But the administration kept track of its unpaid dues with the intention of restoring that funding when the law would allow it. The Trump administration, with Haley leading the way, pulled the United States out of UNESCO altogether as of the end of 2018, citing its “anti-Israel bias.” It made this decision even though a fully funded UNESCO is an important contributor to counterterrorism and U.S. national security efforts.

At the time, Haley insisted that the administration would approach every UN organization similarly, with an eye toward punishing anything it perceived as bias against Israel. And so it has. Haley announced in June that the United States would quit the UN Human Rights Council, referring to the body as “a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.” Making clear what she meant by “political bias,” Haley further criticized the council for what she termed its “disproportionate focus and unending hostility toward Israel.” Interestingly, the facts show that the Obama administration’s decision to join the council coincided with a decline in the council’s focus on Israel, but that seems not to have influenced the Trump administration’s decision-making process. Presumably the administration wanted to keep the council from focusing on its own human rights abuses as well.

Haley also spearheaded the administration’s move to first cut and then eliminate its funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency, the organization responsible for dealing with Palestinian refugees. This policy was the brainchild of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and evidently his Middle East peace guru, and is rooted in Kushner’s apparent belief that it’s possible to simply define Palestinian refugees out of existence. Haley was crucial in selling the administration’s case that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue by, basically, continuing to aid (and count) refugees. Although UNRWA has made up most of its ensuing funding shortfall for 2018, the organization’s continued functioning remains precarious and the potential ramifications should it cease operating are profoundly troubling. But the administration’s hope, and the policy Haley helped implement, is that it can brutalize the Palestinian people enough that their leaders will accept any peace deal the US and Israel offer, no matter how lopsided.

Haley’s tenure as UN ambassador also saw the United States pull out of negotiations on the Global Compact for Migration (GCM). This administration’s unabashed hostility toward migrants is obviously no secret, and the GCM threatened to oblige the United States, at least in principle if not in practice, to aid migrant resettlement efforts at a time when global displacement is at levels never before seen. Washington has also pulled its funding for the UN Population Fund, which does family planning and maternal health work in over 150 countries. And Haley is leaving office at a time when the administration is looking to sever its links to the UN’s International Court of Justice.

In short, Nikki Haley went to the UN intending to break as much of it as she could, and she leaves having accomplished her mission. Late last year she took credit for the UN having cut its budget by almost $300 million, at a time when the institution’s challenges—on climate change, on displacement, in Syria, in Yemen, and elsewhere—are perhaps as great as they’ve ever been. If those cuts leave the UN less able to combat those challenges, it could lead to outcomes for which Haley would prefer to avoid bearing any responsibility.

The “Scratch My Back Doctrine”

Haley also contributed to two other trends in her time as a diplomat. Through her work at the UN she played a key role in helping Trump implement his ultra-transactional foreign policy vision, wherein U.S. foreign aid has become conditional on the degree to which potential beneficiaries have ingratiated themselves to Washington and in particular to Trump himself. Haley articulated this “Scratch My Back Doctrine” most clearly during the fallout from the U.S. decision to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, contravening decades of U.S. policy and effectively ending any Palestinian hopes of claiming part of the city as the future capital of a hypothetical Palestinian state.

Earlier this year Haley’s office drafted an internal memo that explicitly tied foreign aid to a country’s voting record in the UN General Assembly, after the UNGA overwhelmingly adopted a resolution demanding that the United States reverse its embassy decision. The memo identified “nearly 40 countries that received a total of $100 million in U.S. assistance in 2016, but that vote against the United States 54 percent of the time,” and suggested reviewing their foreign aid packages, according to Foreign Policy. This memo was presumably linked to Trump’s comment in his 2018 State of the Union address that U.S. aid should “only go to America’s friends,” defined as nations that most readily acquiesce to U.S. foreign policy decisions.

Perhaps Haley’s most important contribution, particularly in terms of furthering her political career, has been in aligning Trump’s foreign policy with the aims of the neoconservative faction within the Republican Party. Though many prominent neocons, like Bill Kristol, placed themselves in the “Never Trump” camp during the 2016 presidential election, neoconservatives are once more in the ascendance as Trump nears the end of his second year, and Haley has played a major role in making that happen.

Haley is herself a neoconservative—indeed, as Jim Lobe put it, she’s been a “neocon heartthrob” and the beneficiary of considerable support from billionaire neoconservative backer Sheldon Adelson, who put $250,000 into Haley’s 527 organization in the summer of 2016. Adelson was also Trump’s largest financial backer in 2016 and is bankrolling Republican efforts to maintain control of Congress in November.

Adelson’s single biggest political interest is Israel, and he’s backed Haley precisely for her pro-Israel political views. Her advocacy for Israel at the UN no doubt appeals to him. Likewise, Adelson was undoubtedly impressed by Haley’s efforts to malign the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), which included repeated and completely unsupported assertions that Iran was not complying with the terms of the agreement. Then in December, Haley delivered a much-ballyhooed address purporting to show that Iran had provided ballistic missiles to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Her speech overhyped Iran’s role in the Yemen conflict while completely ignoring the destruction Saudi Arabia has wrought on Yemen since it decided to intervene in that country’s civil war. Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar described it as “the closest replication yet” to Colin Powell’s infamous 2003 UN speech wherein he made the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq.

Small wonder, then, that some of Washington’s most prominent advocates for exiting the JCPOA, like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies crowd, are now talking up a potential Nikki Haley presidency. Having helped shape and carry out the foreign policy of a man she once criticized for his “irresponsible talk” during the 2016 presidential campaign, Haley leaves the UN having accomplished two missions: one on behalf of Trump, the other on behalf of her own future in the Republican Party.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. The execrable, posturing, sneering, a*s-kicking Haley isn’t America’s ambassador. She’s Israel’s ambassador. And that is an “ambarrassador outrage” to any patriotic, concerned-with-US-national-interests American citizen. Good riddance to her, but the follow-on model will surely be merely a difference in degree or persona, not in substance (recall Bolton, recess-appointed back in the Dubya reign of error?)

    (One dissent: the “Adelson once famously described himself as a “single-issue guy” whose single issue is Israel…” text actually should be ascribed to Zionist Haim Saban, the Democrats’ an$wer to Adelson. Of course, in practice Adelson is a cut from the same ol’ Zionist/Israel cloth….)

    (Another: Mr. Davison’s concluding sentence would better read “…Haley leaves the UN having accomplished three prime missions: one on behalf of Trump, another on behalf of her own future in the Republican Party, and a big one on behalf of her first-love Israel.”)

    Overall, a fine assessment by Mr. Davison. Kudos to him.

  2. Haley was planted in the Trump administration by the neocons since when Trump was campaigning against all current US wars and the cost of these wars to the nation! She had a two prong order from her neocons friends:
    1. Protect Israel as the US ambassador in the UN at any cost to the US
    2. Convince or force Trump to leave his ideas at home. Follow the directions and stop talking about “declaring win and removing the US forces from the ME and Korean Peninsula”
    Well guess what, she was successful in carrying out her orders given to her by the neocons! In short, I will be surprised if she doesn’t get the role of leadership at the think-tank!

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