As a slew of Republican presidential candidates prepared for a nationally televised debate in South Carolina ahead of the party’s 2016 primary election there, one of the hotly sought endorsements was from the state’s governor, Nikki Haley. Born Nimrata Randhawa, the daughter of South Asian immigrants, she governed the red state of South Carolina—deep in the bible belt and featuring a number of military bases—as a woman of color and as a member of a party that was beset by racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic politics. Haley was a rising star in the Republican Party who was seeking to make a name for herself on the national stage. She could have lent her support to the senator from her state, Linsdey Graham, who had been a candidate earlier on, or to Jeb Bush, whose brother and former President George W. Bush was popular in South Carolina, or to any one of the other six candidates still in the race. But Haley could not make up her mind about which candidate to back as the nominee of her party. She, however, was certain of one thing: her candidate could not be Donald Trump. In fact, she stated that Trump was “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.”
Months later, Nikki Haley would accept a nomination from President-elect Trump to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations—only to resign less than two years into the position. Her mercurial decisions over this short period and the way she spent her time on the job offer important insights into the intersections of American foreign policy and domestic politics.
Haley’s Path to the UN
As the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley was able to build some notoriety in the Republican Party. She took the helm of South Carolina at the age of 39 and was probably 10-20 years away from thinking of a presidential run. Her background and behavior continued to position her as a viable candidate down the line. Despite governing a conservative and religiously leaning state, Haley found a way to remain appealing to many moderates. When Dylann Roof, a white supremacist and terrorist murdered nine worshipers in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, Haley reversed her position on keeping a Confederate flag flying at the State House and called for its removal. Soon after, when candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigrants, Haley slammed it as “un-American.”
By the time of the South Carolina primary, six Republican presidential candidates remained including Trump, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Haley expressed support for Rubio and Cruz before ultimately saying she would begrudgingly vote for Trump. In reality, there was no path for Haley to the White House outside the Republican Party; and despite the efforts of many other candidates in the primary, 15 in fact, the party now belonged to Donald Trump. To move up the ranks for a shot at the presidency one day would mean having to navigate this turbulent period without making war with her own party and its extremist president. But Donald Trump was also not an average Republican. He rode to power on the platform of xenophobia and has had weeks in office filled with more scandals than previous presidents fit into two full terms. Indeed, Trump’s approval ratings have been at historic lows.
For Haley, remaining politically viable as a White House contender meant staying close enough to Trump to continue to be in the Republican fold and not alienate most of his supporters; at the same time, she maintained a distance from him so that she would not be tainted by his disparaging excesses. This was a difficult tightrope to walk but it afforded Haley an opportunity to advance her own ambitions and prospects.
The position of ambassador to the United Nations was a seemingly perfect answer for what Haley needed. It allowed her to elevate her profile without fading into the background during the Trump years. At the same time, being based in New York allowed her to remain a safe distance from Trump’s travails in Washington. One only need reflect on the predicament former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faced to appreciate the situation; he was in effect sidelined right from the start, while the president declared the administration’s foreign policy decisions in daily tweets. Serving at the UN also allowed Haley to add foreign policy experience to her resume.
Such a position would make her a well-rounded candidate to run for president in a post-Trump Republican Party. Her identity as a younger female of color and daughter of immigrants would allow Haley to connect with demographics that her party—which is dominated by older, white males—could not reach effectively. By then she would have the executive experience of governing a state as well as representing the nation on a global stage. All she had to do was to abandon the Trump boat before it capsized and drowned her. Haley managed to do so in recent weeks when she announced, just after the recent UN General Assembly meetings, that she would be stepping down from her post at the end of 2018. It is instructive to examine what she focused on during her tenure at the United Nations to understand how she is planning her political path in the context of the trends in American politics today.
Haley and Palestine at the United Nations
Before his administration was officially sworn in on January 20, 2017, President-elect Donald Trump was already working to change the way the United Nations dealt with Israel. His public dispute with the outgoing Obama Administration over a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in December 2016 led to his commitment to change the way the United States was behaving at the international body.
As part of an overall effort to embrace tightly the Israeli right wing, beginning with the idea of announcing recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on inauguration day, Haley would be the administration’s point person for carrying forward this position at the United Nations. Within days of her confirmation, Nikki Haley released a statement that raised many eyebrows: she announced she would be opposing the nomination of former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to a UN position as envoy to Libya. Several things were striking about her announcement. First, the UN post in Libya had almost nothing to do with the Israeli/Palestinian issue. Second, Fayyad was probably the most beloved Palestinian by the Washington, DC elite, earning the moniker “our man in Palestine”; during his tenure, he received high praise from the Bush and Obama Administrations as well as from the bureaucracy that undergirded both White Houses. Third, Haley reportedly gave the UN secretary-general the impression she would support the nomination just days before opposing it. Fourth, and perhaps most important, was Haley’s reasoning for rejecting Fayyad: he was Palestinian. What emerged from this bizarre episode was that Haley wanted to send a message and set an example that she was at the United Nations for one key reason, which was to support Israel and disparage the Palestinians.
Haley would continue her tenure in similar fashion. When President Trump announced he would move the US embassy to Jerusalem in December 2017, votes in both the Security Council and the General Assembly isolated the United States, thus reflecting the world’s rejection of this unilateral move. Haley, who worked to get as many nations as possible either to vote with the United States or to abstain, attempted to spin the final vote, which was overwhelmingly opposed to the US position: she threw a party for those who endorsed the United States’ stance.
Immediately afterward, Haley began enunciating new steps the administration would take to squeeze the Palestinians including the possibility of cutting US aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which was tasked with providing relief for Palestinian refugees. Even though she had praised UNRWA programs just months earlier, she began to lead the charge to defund the agency.
Haley also led the US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council. In her statement, she cited “chronic bias” against Israel. “Last year,” Haley said, “the United States made it clear that we would not accept the continued existence of agenda item seven, which singles out Israel in a way that no other country is singled out. Earlier this year, as it has in previous years, the Human Rights Council passed five resolutions against Israel—more than the number passed against North Korea, Iran, and Syria combined. This disproportionate focus and unending hostility towards Israel is [sic] clear proof that the council is motivated by political bias, not by human rights.”
In addition to positions on Israel, which drew enthusiastic support from the most right wing evangelical and Zionist constituencies, Haley’s tone on Russia, in particular, seemed to be independent of a White House surrounded by questions of benefiting from Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. At the UN, she maintained a foreign policy profile that could be characterized as mainstream Republican; therefore, even though she served in a Trump Administration criticized for its tolerant views toward Russia, in the future she could point to her own independent positions on Russia to fend off political attacks.
What Haley’s Decisions Suggest About US Politics
The question to consider is if Haley’s political gamble with the Trump Administration will pay political dividends. She denies being interested in running for president in 2020, but she is also young enough to be a viable candidate in 2024, 2028, or even 2032, when she would be just 60 years old. Haley has clearly positioned herself as a player in the Republican Party for some time to come. Her personal profile, however, may still be a challenge for her. More than ever before, and polls confirm these trends, the Republican Party has become the party of white men. Donald Trump took over a Republican Party that had already moved in this direction, but his impact was to exacerbate these trends. With policies that are anti-immigrant, often overtly and unapologetically racist, routinely anti-Muslim, and at times tolerant of anti-Semitism as well, the Republican Party Trump will leave behind, two or six years from now, will be a caricature of the party he inherited.
What does that mean for a politically ambitious candidate who does not fit the profile of a white Christian male? Haley will likely have an opportunity to win over independents should she make a presidential run, but that would mean first securing the party’s nomination for the presidency. Will Republican voters who have been fed the red meat of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny for years gravitate toward the daughter of Sikh immigrants from Punjab? Would her primary opponents be able to hold back from using the dog whistles that would make the base of the party suspicious of her? This would require the post-Trump GOP to be radically different from the party under his current leadership.
That is where Haley’s zealous support of Israel and willingness to disparage Palestinians become relevant: in a way, they serve as her path to whiteness in a party where Whiteness is vital. Despite Donald Trump’s behavior, salacious scandals, and abusive policies, no demographic has stuck beside him like white evangelicals. In fact, polls show that no religious group views demographic change in the US as a negative thing more than white evangelicals. At the same time, never before has opinion on Israel in the United States been so starkly divided across political and demographic lines. Those Americans who are older, whiter, and more religious—particularly evangelical—are much more likely to support Israel fervently. For Haley, being able to point to her stalwart support of Israel at the United Nations and her blessings from Netanyahu, who is practically a patron saint of Republicans today, buys her credibility with a key constituency she would have to win over to have a good chance at the American presidency.
Haley’s path to the United Nations and the posture she took while there tells us a lot about her own political ambitions. It also suggests the way in which she is reading the political projections that support for Israel in the United States is becoming increasingly partisan and divisive.