Politico

Is Nikki Haley Ready for War?

Written by Lisa

When Nikki Haley agreed to be President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, many pundits assumed that she saw a stint in New York as an opportunity to prepare for even higher offices. But if the ambitious former governor of South Carolina hoped that the U.N. would offer a relatively gentle introduction to international affairs, she must be profoundly disappointed. Since taking office in late January, Haley and her foreign counterparts on the Security Council have faced a torrent of dire news.

Iran and North Korea have conducted missile tests. Fighting has intensified in Ukraine. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of famines looming in Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen. U.N. officials fret that mounting violence in countries that were barely on the ambassador’s radar a few months ago, such as the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, are putting blue helmet peacekeeping forces in increasing danger.

On Tuesday, Haley underwent a sort of multilateral initiation ritual as Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution the U.S. had worked up with Britain and France demanding that the Syrian regime should be held to account for its continuing use of chemical weapons. U.N. diplomacy can be a rough sport.

Sooner or later, one of these situations will take a decisive turn for the worse, putting Haley’s nascent diplomatic skills to the test. As I noted in a Politico profile of Haley’s predecessor, Samantha Power, every U.S. representative to the U.N. has to be ready for their “Srebrenica moment”: An all-out crisis that threatens to leave thousands or tens of thousands dead and humiliate both the U.N. and Washington. Power’s own predecessor, Susan E. Rice, went through her version during the 2011 Libyan war. Power confronted more than her fair share of serious crises, from the collapse of South Sudan in 2013 to the siege of Aleppo last December, and often found herself unable to avert them. Haley could face even more appalling tests.

To her credit, she has been frank that she needs time to learn how the U.N. works. But she has also had to devote a lot of time to addressing diplomats’ concerns about another rogue state: The United States.

In the weeks before and after President Trump’s inauguration, the U.S. and U.N. appeared to be accelerating towards a diplomatic car crash after the Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in December. A few days into Trump’s term a leaked draft executive order suggested that Washington could cut its funding to U.N. agencies by up to 40 percent. Haley arrived in New York warning that she would be “taking names” of countries opposing the U.S., but clearly saw her mission as damage control.

Within a few weeks, she did an impressive job of lowering tensions with American allies, while also reassuring diplomats in the U.S. mission in New York that she does not plan to undermine all their hard work. Haley is said to be affable and reassuring with her foreign counterparts. She has not surrounded herself with any ideologically driven political advisers, and treats professional Foreign Service officers with respect.

Some ambassadors hint that they their new low-key American colleague could prove easier to deal with than Power, who was widely admired for her energy and expertise on the U.N. but left less high-octane diplomats exhausted. In her final two years in office, and after Trump’s surprise election win in particular, Power repeatedly pushed for the Security Council to take a more interventionist approach to trouble spots like Burundi and South Sudan. In doing so she not only set up clashes with China and Russia, but also alienated diplomats from friends including France and Japan, who worried the U.S. hard line might simply backfire.

Haley’s measured tone has thus come as something of a relief. Nonetheless, she seems much more engaged and influential on some issues than others. Her biggest success, at least from Western officials’ perspective, has been to maintain a tough U.S. line on Russia over Syria and Ukraine, despite her boss’s seeming affinity for the Kremlin. Her biggest failure to date has been over Israel and Palestine. And when it comes to the African crises that eat up a lot of U.N. time, the ambassador appears to be either on autopilot or missing in action.

At the start of this year, European diplomats in particular were nervous that the Trump administration would aim to appease its friends in Moscow by taking a soft line with them in the Security Council. But from her first full week in New York, Haley has been tough with the Russians, reiterating the Obama administration’s insistence that Russia should end its occupation of Crimea. The U.S. also pushed ahead with this week’s draft resolution on Syrian chemical weapons, which Power’s team had originally worked on with the British and French. London and Paris avoided bringing this to a vote before the inauguration in case the Trump administration changed tack, but Haley stood by the initiative.

It is not entirely clear whether Haley’s assertive stance towards Russia has full support from the White House. It is rumored that when U.S. officials in New York originally looked to guidance from the National Security Council on what to say about Crimea, the answers were confused. Haley apparently decided to stick with the previous administration’s line in the absence of any alternative. This actually turned out be a boon for President Trump: White House spokesman Sean Spicer has pointed to her statements as proof the administration is “incredibly tough” on Moscow. But Trump could still override Haley if he wished.

This hard fact was underlined by the one great blunders of Haley’s tenure to date: The Salam Fayyad affair. In early February, Secretary-General Guterres announced that he planned to appoint Fayyad, a former Palestinian prime minister, as the organization’s representative in Libya. By most accounts, Haley assented to this selection, only to release a last-minute statement late on a Friday claiming it was an example of anti-Israeli bias. Diplomats and U.N. officials presume that someone in the White House, most probably the president’s son-in-law and Middle East point-man Jared Kushner, had forced the reversal.

Kushner seems deeply opposed to the U.N. having any substantive role in Israeli affairs, especially after December’s Israeli settlement vote. It seems possible that the administration will mount an all-out push to delegitimize the U.N.’s already pretty discredited status as Middle East peacemaker. The next step of this campaign could be a decision to boycott the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, long reviled by the American right as a hotbed of anti-Israeli sentiment. The Bush administration did something similar 10 years ago, but if the U.S. pulls out now, it will launch a cycle of diplomatic disruption: Non-Western countries, and many U.S. allies, will just double down on criticisms of Israel in both Geneva and New York.

That may be exactly what hardliners in the administration want. The more rabid the U.N. sounds on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, the easier it will be for Washington to write off the organization. Haley has been critical of the Human Rights Council and emphasized that the U.N. cannot dictate terms to Israel, but she probably recognizes the risks of this vicious cycle running out of control. After President Trump declared that he was not committed the two-state solution, Haley quickly asserted it was “absolutely” something the U.S. supports—though she quickly added that the new administration is “thinking out of the box as well.”

Her views on the issue are not decisive. No U.S. administration will really let the U.N. impose a peace settlement on Israel: President Obama backed bilateral efforts to resolve the conflict and let it fester for long periods. Looking at the Middle East more broadly, the U.N. is also struggling to stay relevant in conflict zones including Syria, Iraq and Yemen after multiple failed peace initiatives. It will still have a role in all three – delivering aid, sheltering refugees and perhaps one day doing post-war reconstruction work – but the basic deals to make this possible will have to take place in backrooms in Moscow, Tehran and Riyadh rather than the Security Council or U.N. offices in Geneva.

By contrast, the organization’s humanitarian workers and peacekeepers continue to play a significant role in African conflict zones such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur. If Haley’s career at the U.N. is going to be defined by a Srebrenica moment, it will probably involve mass slaughter somewhere in Africa. In addition to warning of famine in South Sudan, U.N. officials have flagged that the on-off war there has the potential to culminate in an ethnic genocide. In the Central African Republic (CAR), a broken state that Power pushed hard to make a priority for Washington, U.N. forces are engaged in increasingly vicious skirmishes with militias, using attack helicopters to drive fighters away from vulnerable civilians. The U.N. says it is trying to “prevent a war,” but it might just end up fighting one. It is already trapped in a costly struggle to contain Islamist insurgents in Mali, where African peacekeepers are routinely killed by ambushes and roadside bombs, with no obvious path to stability.

Is Haley ready to get into the operational details of military and relief efforts in such geopolitical backwaters? While the Security Council has held public meetings on African issues including CAR and Somalia since Haley arrived in New York, she has consistently sent other officials to take the U.S. chair. Other diplomats say that this is quite pleasant and efficient, as the professionals avoid unnecessary political rhetoric. But Haley also reportedly skipped an off-the-record Council session on South Sudan requested by the U.S. last week, suggesting that she is either not confident or not interested in the issue.

This is certainly a contrast to Power, who led a number of Security Council missions to South Sudan in person. Having the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. getting too personally involved in the nitty-gritty of the organization’s operations is not necessarily a good idea—diplomats generally make poor generals. Nonetheless, Haley should be aware that if and when CAR or South Sudan next explode, both her fellow diplomats and the media will hold her accountable. U.N. officials worry that Haley is more interested in finding some major cost savings for Washington in the organization’s operations than in preparing for potential bouts of bloodshed.

This may not be entirely fair: Haley has said that she is against “slash and burn” cuts to the U.N., and was probably instrumental to ensuring that the executive order mandating 40 percent cuts never became official policy. The U.N. is winding down a couple of long-running peacekeeping missions, including those in Haiti and Liberia, so it may be possible to announce some fairly large savings for the U.N. soon anyway.

But with the president aiming to cut back U.S. diplomatic and aid budgets to boost the Pentagon, Haley may struggle to ensure that Washington keeps funding U.N. relief and peacemaking efforts at the levels they need to succeed. And if that proves impossible, the dangers of violence and humanitarian crises overtaking her agenda will rise. Haley eased the risks of an early U.S.-U.N. meltdown with her initial deft diplomacy, and has the makings of a strong envoy. But her Srebrenica moment will come regardless. Will she be ready?

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Lisa

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