Compared with the years during which the Iran nuclear deal was under consideration or the presidential election was raging, this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference had been a tame affair. Politicians of both parties spoke; the latest miraculous Israeli technology was on display. But Vice President Pence gave a bland address, and the most moving speeches before Monday afternoon came on Sunday from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, followed by the president of Rwanda. Then, on Monday afternoon, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley showed up.
Rather than a speech, she chose an interview format with Dan Senor, a favorite in the conservative foreign policy community. She plowed no new policy ground, nor conveyed much detail but what she said was a spectacular hit. More than any other speaker, she endeared herself to the crowd, which gave her the heartiest applause and most ovations of the conference. Her appearance is worth watching in full if only because we may hear a lot more from Haley in future years:
Her “taking names” attitude and willingness to give the notoriously anti-Israeli U.N. a wallop now and then (“I wear heels, not as a fashion statement, but to kick them. . . . There’s a new sheriff in town.”) gave the audience something worth celebrating after enduring a dreadful political campaign and a rocky beginning to the presidency of Donald Trump, for whom most attendees did not vote. The crowd luxuriated in her heartfelt identification with the Jewish people as an Indian American and her reminder that, while she was governor, South Carolina became the first state to pass anti-BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) legislation. But it was her determination to go after the jackals at the United Nations, who single out Israel again and again for demonization and calumny, which won over the crowd.
At 18,000 or so attendees, this was the biggest crowd for any member of the Trump administration since Inauguration Day. And it might have been the most successful insofar as it vividly conveyed a break from the Obama administration, one that seems to have wide, bipartisan support. Haley’s pledge of American reliability and loyalty to an ally, her insistence that moral judgments must ground foreign policy and her willingness to be odd-person out at the United Nations turned out, at least with this audience (and I would suggest, with many more Americans, both pro- and anti-Trump), to be exceptionally popular.
Trump should take notice. He and his apologists seem entirely unaware that putting “America First” means restoring its moral vision and defense of democratic values. You do not score points by letting bullies (be it the U.N. General Assembly or Russia) dictate the terms of debate and avoid scrutiny. You do not score points by treating allies (be it Israel or NATO) as an unpleasant burden. And you really don’t win fans by regurgitating the war weariness of the prior administration that signaled we were out of patience and lacking in tenacity.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who hides from the public and the press, should pay attention as well. He doesn’t have Haley’s charm or immigrant story, but he can convey something about what America stands for in the world. That would be popular at home and a wake-up call to friend and foe alike. Rather than “America First,” he’d win over a lot of people, as Haley did, by announcing we are taking names, ready to deliver a kick now and then to foes and remain unabashed in advancing American values (and not just at the United Nations.)