The redoubtable Nikki Haley: Warming up for the Oval Office

Historically, the UN ambassador tended to function as a megaphone for the administration. Some had the rank of cabinet secretary, others did not. Enter Nikki.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley addresses AIPAC, March 2018 (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley addresses AIPAC, March 2018
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Shortly after the appointment of Nikki Haley as US ambassador to the United Nations, I had breakfast in New York with an old friend from high school. As soon as he finished university, he left Toronto and held a succession of wildly exciting jobs (for a 20-something) working with policy wonks in New York and Washington DC.
For several years he worked in the West Wing in a very senior position and has since been involved with a number of high-level campaigns. His political acumen is razor-sharp.
Yet he scoffed at Haley’s decision to accept the role of ambassador to the UN in the Trump administration.
His assumption at the time, with which I agreed, was that Haley was likely mulling a possible run for the top job, in due course.
“She has way more power and relevance as a state governor,” he declared. “Nobody in America really pays attention to the UN.”
I saw things differently, thinking that the UN was an excellent environment in which to cut one’s foreign policy chops. If Haley did aspire to the Oval Office, foreign policy experience was a significant deficiency in her demonstrated competencies. Governors may weigh in from time to time on such issues, but rarely, and with little influence and virtually no public profile.
As my friend rightly countered, the UN was more theater of the absurd than an actual policy shop. The State Department, unlike the UN, actually gets things done, responsible as it is for articulating and implementing policy.
Historically, the UN ambassador tended to function as a megaphone for the administration. Some had the rank of cabinet secretary, others did not.
Enter Nikki.
In her resignation letter issued on Monday, Haley reiterated the terms upon which she accepted the appointment under President Trump: that she serve in Cabinet and on the National Security Council. And, most important, that she be “free to speak [her] mind on the issues of the day.” In two sentences she cemented and telegraphed her central importance with respect to foreign policy and strongly suggested that she was a key policy influencer.
HALEY IS insanely charismatic. She electrifies stadiums – as she did last year at the AIPAC Policy Conference. Always cool, unflappable, she took no guff, never, from nobody.
She stared down despots, dictators, tyrants, Jew-haters and Israel-bashers. In less than two years on the job she has bequeathed an impressive trove of memorable quotes and moments.
My personal fave: After some sharp public exchanges with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiator, Saeb Erekat, the latter suggested Haley “shut up.”
His outburst was in response to her firm defense of America’s move of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“No. I will not shut up,” she shot back.
Hardly Churchillian oratory, but equally masterful: succinct, sharp and throwing their coarse, intemperate comments right back at them, with trademark politeness. Such elegant restraint reflects tremendous skill.
In two years she made the UN platform do everything my friend said it could not: She created an international brand. Nikki Haley is now perceived to be a serious foreign policy player.
Perhaps her most impressive accomplishment has been her ability to remain above and outside the often unseemly and sordid mess associated with the current administration. Her departure is the first to have been managed in a remotely professional manner, with a protocol-perfect open-to-the-press moment, each wishing the other well – Haley and President Trump. No Twitter termination for Nikki Haley.
Speculation as to why Haley is really leaving the job now is rampant, as expected.
Among the many rumors circulating is one that has her in conflict with NSA John Bolton, who is reputed to hold the view that the UN ambassador should not be in the cabinet for two reasons: It raises the position and institution to a higher level of importance than it actually holds in American foreign policy, and it creates a two-headed monster with the State Department, generally not a recipe for strong policy formation, execution or messaging.
Here’s my theory: In addition to the Bolton factor, she knows that post mid-terms and in the run-up to 2020, things will get nastier, and she cannot dodge scandal or taint forever. Her reputation is, at the moment, enhanced, as are her credentials. She can spend a few years making some serious coin and developing financial and other networks to support her contention for the Republican nomination in 2024.
Godspeed, Nikki Haley.
The writer is a former ambassador of Canada to Israel and resides in Tel Aviv.