No Cabinet-level member of the Trump administration has been as fearless and independent as our ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, in speaking out regardless of her boss’s position. Perhaps the distance between New York and Washington affords her some latitude. Maybe the not-ready-for-prime-time secretary of state is too lax or clueless to rein her in. At any rate, since taking her post she has slammed the Russians on support for Syria and complicity in human rights atrocities; affirmed that the Western Wall is in Israel; confirmed there is no question that Russia interfered in our election; made clear there can be no peace in Syria as long as Bashar al-Assad is in power; and put human rights front and center.
In some cases, these declaration contradict U.S. policy under President Trump; in other cases, her emphasis and tone simply differ from Trump’s and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s normal rhetoric. Indeed her starkest disconnects are with Tillerson — on the importance of human rights and on the Western Wall, for example.
Some of this can be attributed to the nature of her role, which is primarily rhetorical. Her presence at Turtle Bay affords her above all the ability to name and shame wrongdoers and stick up for repressed people. She can raise the banner of human rights, pointing to the hypocrisy of repressive states that spend their time condemning the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel.
She stands out in this administration because virtually no one else gives voice to these concerns. Her sharp elbows can fend off anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. sentiment. She does not need to extract cooperative understandings with rogue states or balance, say, trade and human rights.
Nothing, however, quite prepared us for her embrace of a special prosecutor, who now heads what Trump has called a “witch hunt.” In an MSNBC interview, she asserted that “we absolutely need the investigation.” She added, “I think that all these questions need to be answered so that the administration can get back to work.” She not only recognized the legitimacy of the investigation in these remarks but also seemed to suggest it was getting in the way of accomplishing the president’s goals. If everything were copacetic, she would not need to project hope that the president “can get back to work.”
Is this some devilishly clever plot to get fired and become the first martyr of the Trump administration? Is she positioning herself for 2020 or 2024? She denies laying the groundwork to run for president, as one would expect whether or not she is looking ahead. Instead of these concerns, we suggest that her relative independence stems from three factors.
First, her alliances within the GOP, most especially with Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), have often been with those who champion human rights and international engagement. She endorsed Rubio in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012; both of them embrace a robust U.S. foreign policy based on both our values and our interests.
Second, she went through the wringer on race issues in South Carolina, in conjunction with both the mass murder in Charleston and then her decision to take down the Confederate battle flag. While empathy on race domestically does not always translate into embrace of human rights internationally, this trial by fire in South Carolina seems to have left an indelible mark on her.
At the Kemp Foundation dinner in December, where she received an award, she spoke passionately about her parents, who immigrated from India, and her appreciation of America as a “beacon of freedom.” And she spoke about attending the funerals of each of the nine slain congregants of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, heralding them for being welcoming to Dylann Roof, someone who “did not look like them or sound like them, talk like them or look like them.” She extolled Jack Kemp’s foreign policy, specifically his fight to end apartheid in South Africa. Clearly, before arriving at the U.N. she had done some thinking about human dignity, discrimination, empathy and the meaning of America.
Finally, she has the benefit of the professionals at the U.N. mission. Unlike Tillerson, who is operating without scores of political appointees, she actually has people around her who can fill in the blanks, provide continuity and prevent unforced errors. Taking advice from experienced experts — what a concept.
In short, Haley’s outspokenness, rather than evidence of political scheming, reflects, it seems, her true beliefs, her life experience and her adept use of staff. The country should hope she doesn’t get canned for being a clear, sincere voice for human rights. In fact, Trump would have a far more effective foreign policy if she replaced Tillerson at State. She at least plainly understands the role of public diplomacy.