WASHINGTON — Fourteen minutes. That’s how long Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, spent in conversation with interviewer Dan Senor at AIPAC’s annual policy conference on Monday afternoon. And that was all it took to mark her out as the undisputed star of this event… and of who knows what to follow.
“That was the next president of the United States,” said a man watching alongside me as Haley left the stage to a huge standing ovation. Ridiculous, you might say — to use a word that Haley employed several times in describing the United Nations environment into which she has plunged with such reformist vigor. Well, probably. But certainly reflective of the adulatory mood among the 18,000 people massed in the Verizon Center.
It was clear well before Haley’s appearance at the annual event that her no-nonsense dismissals in recent weeks of the UN’s dreadful Israel-bashing obsession had won her immense admiration among the delegates to AIPAC. From Ambassador Ron Dermer’s opening mention of her name on Sunday morning, every reference to Haley was met with applause and cheers of approval.
Apparently the only person unaware of her stellar status was the ambassador herself, who was plainly wowed by the reception she received. The standing ovation continued for so long that Haley, having finally sat down after acknowledging every section of the crowd, was forced to stand right back up again, and eventually to motion the audience to take their seats, so that her conversation with Senor could begin.
Haley’s appeal is readily understandable. She looks both personable and serious. She speaks straightforwardly. A former governor of South Carolina, she has a track record that includes the highly resonant achievement, for this audience, of having signed into law the first statewide legislation to counter the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel. And now she’s taking on the reviled UN.
Without seeming slick about it, she also offered, early in her remarks, a very potent parallel between her Indian-American Sikh upbringing and what she called Israeli culture (I’m guessing she meant Jewish) that would have endeared her to anyone in the audience who wasn’t already won over: “We’re very close knit. We love our families. We have a strong work ethic. We believe in professionalism and philanthropy and giving back,” she said. And then paused. “So that’s all the good things,” she continued, to much laughter. Then, “We’re aggressive. We’re stubborn. And we don’t back down from a fight. So it’s a…” She didn’t get to finish that sentence, so overwhelming was the roar.
Her rhetoric smacked of common sense. She’d gone to the United Nations, and found it to be an absurd place. And now she was telling the folks at AIPAC about it.
She recalled how “bizarre” it was for her, when she first set foot in the UN, to listen to delegate after delegate simply bash Israel — the more so when there are so many crises and threats to deal with in the Middle East. “I knew they said it was bad, but until you hear it, and you see it, you just can’t comprehend how ridiculous it is,” she said.
She lambasted former president Barack Obama’s beloved Iran nuclear deal, and said it was “beyond me” and “terrible” that the deal got passed.
She declared that when UN Security Council Resolution 2334 was approved in December 2016, its passage facilitated by the Obama administration’s failure to exercise a veto, “the entire country felt a kick in the gut. We had just done something that showed the United States at its weakest point ever,” she said. “Never do we not have the backs of our friends. We don’t have a greater friend than Israel. And to see that happen was not only embarrassing, it was hurtful.” Nowadays, by contrast, she went on, “everyone at the United Nations is scared to talk to me about Resolution 2334. And I wanted them to know that, Look, that happened, but it will never happen again.”
All these forthright declarations were met with delight.
So, too, some of her one-liners, delivered with restraint, but with unmistakable conviction.
On Iran: “We’re going to watch them like a hawk.”
On her approach to confronting what she thinks is unfair: “All I did was tell the truth.”
On engineering change at the UN: “I’m not there to play.”
And: “The days of Israel-bashing are over.”
And: “I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement. It’s because if I see something wrong, we’re going to kick ’em every single time.”
And most loudly applauded of all: “So for anyone that says you cannot get anything done at the UN, they need to know there’s a new sheriff in town.”
But Haley, no matter how convincing, would not have soared were it not for the tangible, initial successes of her mission. It was the combination of words with first deeds that cemented her triumph.
The folks at the UN “didn’t know exactly” what she had in mind at first, “so we showed them,” Haley said. “So when they decided to try and put a Palestinian (the former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad) in one of the highest positions that had ever been given at the UN, we said no, and we had him booted out.” That garnered a pretty enthusiastic response, but Haley wasn’t finished. “That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a nice man,” she said graciously. “That doesn’t mean he wasn’t good to America,” she further allowed.
But then came the punch line: “What it means is until the Palestinian Authority comes to the table, until the UN responds the way they’re supposed to, there are no freebies for the Palestinian Authority anymore.” The roof fairly shook.
Second example: “So then they tested us again. And this ridiculous report, the Falk report, came out. I don’t know who the guy is, or what he’s about, but he’s got serious problems,” said Haley, lightly horrified. “Goes and compares Israel to an apartheid state?”
So what did she do about it? “The first thing we do is we call the secretary general, and say, ‘This [report] is absolutely ridiculous. You have to pull it.’ The secretary general immediately pulled the report, and then the director has now resigned.” Again the roar.
And that’s when she delivered the “new sheriff” zinger: “So for anyone that says you can’t get anything done at the UN, they need to know there’s a new sheriff in town.” Yes, indeed.
The “next president of the United States”? That’s really not the point right now.
But quite the asset to this one.