At Odds With Trump, Nikki Haley Charts Her Own Foreign-Policy Path

Trump’s U.N. envoy travels to Middle East to highlight needs of Syrian refugees while White House presses budget cuts that could harm them.

A picture taken on May 21, 2017 shows US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley (L) meeting with Syrian refugee students in the Jordanian capital Amman. / AFP PHOTO / AP POOL / Raad Adayleh        (Photo credit should read RAAD ADAYLEH/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on May 21, 2017 shows US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley (L) meeting with Syrian refugee students in the Jordanian capital Amman. / AFP PHOTO / AP POOL / Raad Adayleh (Photo credit should read RAAD ADAYLEH/AFP/Getty Images)

While President Donald Trump basked in the pomp of state visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, his U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, chose a decidedly less glamorous itinerary for her own maiden Middle East trip: Visiting Syrian children in refugee camps in Jordan.

The dueling images of America’s president being decorated with a golden necklace by an Arab king and Haley high-fiving displaced Syrian schoolchildren couldn’t have drawn a sharper contrast. And for Haley, that may be the point.

Four months into her tenure as the envoy of a president she once denounced as reckless, Haley has carved out a distinct foreign-policy path, one that sees Russia unambiguously as an enemy, touts America’s role as a human rights champion, and advocates for continued U.S. leadership on the humanitarian front.

While it may be too early to discern a Haley foreign-policy doctrine, the former South Carolina governor has been building a strikingly independent political brand that distinguishes her from a White House that has veered from one crisis to the next while showing little regard for human rights or the plight of the poor.

In many important ways, her foreign-policy views hew more toward those of Republican Party stalwarts — like Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds the State Department and international organization — than to the president’s.

Haley’s early denunciations of Russia and President Vladimir Putin as an unreliable partner has inoculated her from appearing to be cozying up to a historic adversary bent on undermining U.S. democracy. Trump, for his part, has proven reluctant to criticize Moscow or Putin, and took Russian officials into his confidence earlier this month, reportedly sharing sensitive intelligence with them in the Oval Office.

On Monday, Haley broke with the president by endorsing the need for special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collaboration between Russia and Trump campaign aides aimed at securing Trump’s election.

“We absolutely need the investigation,” she told MSNBC‘s Craig Melvin. “I think all these questions need to be answered so that the administration can get back to work.” Trump, in contrast, dismissed the special prosecutor as a “witch hunt.”

But Haley’s efforts to champion humanitarian causes and American soft power more broadly took a hit Tuesday, as the White House released a 2018 budget that would cut U.S. international affairs budget by a whopping $18 billion in 2018, down to around $41 billion. More even than most presidential budgets, it faces a steep battle in a skeptical Congress; some GOP lawmakers have pronounced it “dead on arrival.”

“We see this budget as making America less safe in the world,” said Liz Schrayer, the president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, citing a “growing chorus” of opposition to the budget from the U.S. Congress to relief agencies to religious leaders.

“The stakes are too high for the U.S. to retreat from its global leadership role,” she said.

Haley defended the cuts, saying the president’s budget still “provides strong support for foreign aid while reflecting the reality that resources are not unlimited.”

Humanitarian relief advocates say the White House budget proposals don’t square with Haley’s emphasis on helping the poor.

“The number speaks for themselves,” said Eric Schwartz, the incoming president of Refugees International, a leading refugee advocacy group, and former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration. Schwartz said the budget “zeroes out” a critical food aid program, called Food for Peace, at a time of looming famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen.

The food program — which received $1.6 billion in funding in 2017 — would be shifted from the Agriculture Department’s budget to the State Department’s international disaster relief account, which Trump wants to slash by around 40 percent, making large cuts in the food program inevitable.

“If her rhetoric doesn’t begin to resemble reality to a greater extent then I think she will be fairly criticized as having good instincts, but not achieving any impact in the administration,” he said.

“I hope and trust President Trump and Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson takes her seriously and acts accordingly,” he added. “But this budget coming down the pike is just going to make that very, very hard.”

Haley’s own record on Syrian refugees has been somewhat mixed.

As governor, Haley reacted to the November 2015 Paris terrorist attack by appealing to then-Secretary of State John Kerry not to resettle Syrian refugees in South Carolina, citing concerns that they couldn’t be adequately vetted. She has defended President’s Trump’s ban on travel to the United States by citizens of six Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. (Federal courts have shot down both the administration’s travel bans.)

But in her first weeks on the job, ambassador Haley reached out to career foreign service staff in New York to help identify a handful of pressing issues on which she could focus as ambassador. They proposed humanitarian assistance and human rights — and she ran with it, according to two diplomatic sources.

In April, she hosted a U.N. Security Council meeting to highlight human rights violations, focusing on abuses committed by North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. In a speech to the Security Council last month, Haley denounced Syria’s “slow strangulation of its people” by preventing the U.N. from delivering everything from food and baby formula to vaccines and antibiotics to those in need.

That focus contrasts with Trump and Tillerson, who see promoting human rights as a potential impediment to economic and political cooperation, a sharp departure from decades of U.S. foreign policy. Trump has praised heavy-handed foreign leaders, including Putin, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who all have deplorable human rights records. In a speech this week before an audience that include Saudi King Salman, Trump vowed that “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others.”

Tillerson, meanwhile, instructed his staff in their first weeks in office not to announce any major new commitments to aid, arguing that would be at odds with the President’s “America First” doctrine. And in a recent speech, he suggested that the United States cannot let values dictate its foreign policy.

But Haley has enlisted the support of the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, to raise awareness about the plight of the world’s poorest. Early this month, the two held a White House meeting to address famine and the Syrian humanitarian crises.

On Sunday, Haley headed out to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. She also used the trip to promote the work of the United Nations and its myriad humanitarian agencies, principally the World Food Programme, which is headed by a former South Carolina governor, David Beasley, who was appointed on Haley’s recommendation. U.S. funding for U.N. programs is in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s budget, but Haley sought to reassure refugees.

“We’re the number one donor here through the crisis. That is not going to stop. We’re not going to stop funding this,” she told refugees at the Zaatari camp, according to the Associated Press. “The fact that I’m here shows we want to see what else needs to be done.”

Even if Haley can’t fully deliver on her pledges to resist “slash and burn” cuts to foreign aid spending by the White House — and the full budget released Tuesday follows the same cut-to-the-bone approach laid out in the preliminary budget this spring — she may be charting a path that could ensure her political survival beyond the Trump era.

“What she is doing is carving out a political persona and political story that will stand her in good stead, even if the rest of the administration continues to implode,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Photo credit: RAAD ADAYLEH/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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