By Jonathan S. Tobin
Friday, June 30, 2017
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson doesn’t seem to enjoy being America’s top diplomat. He finds himself isolated in Foggy Bottom and not getting much love or cooperation from the White House. President Donald Trump often contradicts Tillerson’s statements on major issues, like the dustup between the Saudis and Qatar, in such a way as to indicate that Tillerson doesn’t have much influence over U.S. policy.
Trump’s choice for the far less important post of ambassador to the United Nations seems to be having a much better time. Nikki Haley is speaking out frequently on issues such as human rights, Israel, Iran, and Syria in ways that make it clear that, like some of her predecessors, she understands that the U.N. post is the ideal bully pulpit. In an administration in which the country’s putative top diplomat is struggling to manage his department rather than advocating for U.S. values, Haley has become a kind of alternative secretary of state.
There is a long history of tension and contrasts between the occupants of these two offices. But thanks to the huge disparity in power, probably never before has there been a duo in which the U.N. ambassador appears to have the louder voice. While it’s difficult to say what the long-term implications of this will be, the length of Tillerson’s tenure in office is an open question, while Haley’s promising political career — which might have come to an end after she resigned as governor of South Carolina to join the administration of a man she had bitterly opposed during the Republican primaries — seems to have gotten a new lease on life.
Tillerson’s transition from the business world to the State Department has been rocky. Promised autonomy by Trump, the former Exxon CEO has discovered that the White House still has the right to veto every appointment he wants to make. When he recently lost his temper in a meeting over the issue in the White House, he discovered that the inhabitants of the West Wing are always going to leak embarrassing details about someone crossing them in that fashion. Unflattering articles about the dysfunctional nature of his department and his inability to influence the president’s decisions have proliferated.
That’s particularly unfortunate because Tillerson is not the kind of secretary of state who can rise above the organizational politics of Foggy Bottom or tense relations with the West Wing by concentrating on diplomatic initiatives. Tillerson is a manager by trade, not a diplomat, let alone an advocate of a particular point of view about the world. Trump could have had the conservative equivalent of a John Kerry by appointing any one of a number of other possible candidates, including Mitt Romney, Rudolph Giuliani, and John Bolton. Instead he chose someone with no political or diplomatic experience. Trump seems to have assumed that Tillerson would run his department more efficiently than a politician or diplomat would, and that his active participation in the global marketplace would serve him well when seeking to make the brilliant deals Trump assumed his administration would make with friends and foes.
Tillerson was an effective CEO, but his considerable skills do not seem to translate well to the intensely political nature of his job. He’s accused of not understanding that Trump and his team get to control staffing while also cutting himself off from the career Foreign Service officers who know how the department and international diplomacy work.
By contrast, Haley’s appointment didn’t seem to be based on any notion that she could accomplish a thing. Putting her at the U.N. was a minimalist effort to throw a bone to the Never Trump wing of the Republican party. A stern critic of Trump during the campaign who was humiliated by the billionaire’s landslide win in South Carolina, Haley may have expected a job that her experience as governor of a small, mostly rural state might have prepared her to do. It was unclear whether she actually knew anything about the subject of foreign policy.
But despite her apparent lack of preparation, her transition has gone smoothly. Though diplomatic veterans scoff at her willingness to echo Trump’s belief that it is in America’s interests for the world to view it as an unpredictable force, Haley understands that her purpose is not to curry favor with the foreign-policy establishment, let alone with the representatives of other nations. Taking former U.N. ambassadors such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and Bolton as her role models, Haley has made herself right at home in Turtle Bay speaking out fearlessly on a range of issues in ways that have earned her rave reviews from Republicans, as well as some media outlets that have little good to say about Trump, while earning the resentment of traditional American foes.
In contrast to Tillerson, who has gone out of his way to eschew the traditional role of diplomatic spokesman for the nation that leads the free world, in the last six months Haley has become the leading American voice for human rights and against tyranny. Where he has insisted that human rights should not be a prime motive for U.S. foreign policy, they are a priority for Haley. He seems to embody the notion that the purpose of the State Department is to manage a complex world rather than to try to change it. She is someone who is prepared to publicly pressure corrupt and ineffective U.N. agencies such as the Human Rights Council for their hypocrisy and anti-Semitism while reaffirming the U.S. alliance with Israel in a way that is normally the business of the secretary of state.
Even more interesting is that Haley has been a particular critic of Russia’s toxic role in fomenting trouble around the world. Where Tillerson is largely silent about the atrocities committed by Russia and its Iranian and Assad-government allies, Haley is their most outspoken administration critic.
That ought to have gotten her in trouble with a president who still seems to cling to the illusion that a rapprochement with Moscow is possible. But so far Trump is either ignoring her heresy or perhaps encouraging it because he understands the value of having a strong administration voice playing the role of bad cop with the Putin regime.
But the result of all this is something that few could have foreseen when Tillerson and Haley were appointed. While Tillerson is increasingly isolated and lacking influence, Haley has become one of the few clear successes in the Trump cabinet.
There’s no way of knowing whether Tillerson will eventually regain his balance and run the State Department effectively, or whether Haley’s outspokenness will eventually trip her up and cause Trump to dump her in a fit of jealousy or zeal to appease Russia. But as of now, Haley is the person to listen to if you want to hear talk about American values and interests, while Tillerson fumes in private about his feuds with Trump’s aides. That doesn’t make her the unofficial secretary of state, but it does speak to Haley’s political savvy and eloquence, which will ensure this isn’t her last stop in public service.