Nikki Haley Touts an Embellished Account of Her UN “Triumphs”

The diplomatic wins she cites in her memoir regarding Iran and North Korea did not make the US safer.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

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When the super PAC supporting Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign released its first ad touting the former Republican South Carolina governor, the spot led with her service as United Nations ambassador during the Trump administration. Opening with a shot of Haley at the UN, the 30-second ad declared, “Nikki Haley fought America’s enemies at the UN and won.” It proclaimed she was “tough as nails, smart as a whip, unafraid to speak the truth.” In her recent book, With All Due Respect, though, Haley embellishes the truth about her days at the UN. She hails the supposedly tough stances she took there in service of Trump’s erratic foreign policy as tremendous diplomatic achievements. Yet two supposed wins she highlights were hollow and produced little in real-wold results that bolstered the security of the United States. They arguably made the world less safe.

These two matters involved top-drawer national security challenges: North Korea and Iran. 

Referring to the hermit kingdom in East Asia, Haley boasts in the book, “We passed three separate and strong packages of sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear program. That meant doing what had never been done before, bringing China along.” In her narrative, however, Haley skirts three significant elements: what came before, during, and after she shook a stick at North Korea. 

The UN sanctions she helped enact were hardly the first penalties levied on the North Korean regime for its development of nuclear weapons. In 2006, the UN Security Council condemned Pyongyang’s first nuclear test and imposed sanctions on heavy weaponry, missile technology, and luxury goods. China voted for that resolution. Four years later, during the Obama administration, the UN tightened these sanctions after a second North Korean nuclear explosion. (China backed this move.) The UN did so again in 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test. (China supported that measure, too.) After a fourth nuclear blast, the UN strengthened sanctions in March 2016. It did so again later that year—banning the export to North Korea of minerals, helicopters, and other items—in response to North Korea’s fifth nuclear test. (China went along with both of those 2016 resolutions.)

That is, the two administrations before Trump’s had succeeded in winning UN support for sanctions on North Korea in an effort to thwart its pursuit of nuclear weapons. China was part of those efforts. Unfortunately, those measures did not succeeded in curbing North Korea’s nuclear endeavors. 

What Haley did at the UN was not much different and no more effective. But her attempt to rein in North Korea was unique in that while she was striving to squash its nuclear ambitions, her boss was in a dysfunctional relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. 

During his first year in the White House, Trump’s approach to the problem of North Korean nuclearization was to taunt Kim. In early August 2017, after the UN Security Council approved the first of the sanction resolutions that Haley calls “a real triumph,” Trump warned North Korea that it “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” if it threatens the United States. Shortly after that, he tweeted, “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!” The trash talk and the new sanctions didn’t deter Kim. Three weeks later, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. 

A few days afterward, the UN Security Council, pushed by Haley, passed another measure levying sanctions on North Korea that hit oil imports for the country. Following that, during a speech at the UN, Trump declared the United States was willing “to totally destroy North Korea,” if Kim attacked the United States or its allies. He derided the North Korean tyrant as “Rocket Man” and demanded that North Korea denuclearize. Kim replied that Trump’s speech “convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last… I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” Two months later, Kim ratcheted up the conflict by launching a missile that could hit anywhere in the United States.

The sanctions Haley had helped engineer were not working. Her third round of sanctions approved by the UN in December also did not change Kim’s tune. In a speech on New Year’s Day, he proclaimed, “The entire US mainland is in our nuclear striking range, and … a nuclear button is always on my office desk.” He added, “The nuclear weapons research and rocket industry sectors must mass produce nuclear warheads and ballistic rockets.” Trump tweeted back, “Will someone from [Kim Jong Un’s] depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

For months, this juvenile back-and-forth continued. But in June, Trump and Kim held what would be the first of three summit meetings. The two sides committed to establishing new bilateral relations and to work to build “a lasting and stable peace regime.” North Korea also agreed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” That sounded good, but for the North Koreans that meant removing nuclear weapons from North Korea, South Korea, and all areas from which they could be targeted at the Korean peninsula. That was not how the US saw it. More important, nothing in the agreement referred to a timeframe or verification protocols for denuclearization. There was no promise from Kim to end his ballistic missile program. It was all rhetoric. Yet Trump tweeted, “everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” That was typical Trump BS. And at a West Virginia political rally in September, 2018, Trump even proclaimed that he and Kim “fell in love,” and that Kim writes him “beautiful letters.”

Haley left the UN post at the end of 2018, and in her book, she has little to say about the series of meetings Trump held with the brutal dictator.—which granted Kim the recognition and standing he craved. Nor does she refer to Trump’s fawning comments about Kim. These summits produced no deal. But she claims that when she finished at the UN, due to the sanctions she engineered and other measures implemented by the United States, the North Korea situation was “in a better place in 2019 than…in 2016 and 2017.” She maintains, “By the end of my term as ambassador, we had  sanctioned North Korea more harshly than any country in a generation.” Moreover, she insists, Kim was “demonstrably less able to threaten America and the world.”

That is more wish than fact. Despite the UN sanctions, North Korea continued to conduct test launches of ballistic missiles and develop more weapons and nuclear material. Thanks to Trump’s meetings with Kim, this tyrant became less isolated and was granted more latitude within the global community. The nuclear threat posed by North Korea was not less; it was likely greater. In a 2021 assessment, the Defense Intelligence Agency noted that following Trump’s initial 2018 summit with Kim, “North Korea tested multiple new missiles that threaten South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there, displayed a new potentially more capable ICBM and new weapons for its conventional force. Additionally, there continues to be activity at North Korea’s nuclear sites.” The Arms Control Association reached a similar conclusion, reporting that after Trump’s sit-downs with Kim, North Korea “has continued to produce fissile material for its nuclear weapons program and has resumed testing short-, medium-, and very recently longer-range ballistic missiles. It has also likely continued to produce additional numbers of already-tested types of short-, medium-, and longer-range ballistic missiles.”

Haley did succeed in slapping North Korea with sanctions. But this was hardly a breakthrough; it had been done before (with China’s support). Like previous sanctions, they did not succeed. She and Trump did not diminish the threat posed by Kim. On their watch, it increased.

Another major win Haley claims for herself in her book is using her position as UN ambassador to end US participation in the deal the Obama administration, joined by Russia, China, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, struck with Iran to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. In her book, she describes in vivid detail how she clashed with Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, who favored keeping Washington in this accord.

Haley contends that the Iran deal didn’t end Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon and only “paused it, at best” for 10 to 15 years. She recounts that she favored a US pull-out because the Iranian government was supporting the murderous Syrian regime and terrorist groups throughout the Middle East, violating the human rights of its own people, and had in years past lied about its nuclear program. Her argument was that because Iran was a bad actor on the world stage, any deal with it could not be trusted. Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s conclusion that Iran had not “materially breached” the agreement, Haley and her aides believed it was not fully abiding by the deal and hiding nuclear sites from inspectors.

In public, Haley blasted the deal and was heartened when Trump in May 2018 kept a campaign promise and announced the United States would withdraw from the Obama-negotiated pact, pronouncing it “decaying and rotten.” Trump had promised that he could work out a “better deal.” (The other participating nations said they would try to keep the accord alive.) In her book, Haley, praising Trump’s decision, writes, “The reaction of the defenders of the deal was telling. Few attempted to rebut the administration’s critique. Instead, there was immediate, fierce criticism that the U.S. withdrawal put us on the wrong side of our European allies.” And, she adds, the reasons the British, French, and Germans put forward for staying in the accord “were not substantive. They boiled down to little more than a fierce protection of the status quo.” 

Her dismissive characterization of the reaction to Trump’s withdrawal is inaccurate. Members of Congress who supported the deal—Democrats and Republicans—assailed the move for undermining an important non-proliferation agreement that was deemed to be working. The European Union responded by noting that the accord was “a key element of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture” and “crucial for the security of the region.” It added, “As long as Iran continues to implement its nuclear related commitments, as it has been doing so far and has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 10 consecutive reports, the EU will remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation oft he nuclear deal.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron issued a joint statement noting that they would “remain committed to ensuring the agreement is upheld,” maintaining that the Iran deal had made the world a “safer place.” 

In her book, Haley points to Iran’s aggression—such as the seizing of international ships in the Strait of Hormuz—to justify Trump’s decision “to withdraw from what was a terrible deal.” She cites ending the supposed appeasement of Iran as one of the accomplishments of the Trump administration that occurred during her time at the UN. Yet none of this slowed Iran’s nuclear program.

Not surprisingly, the “better deal” Trump promised never materialized. (Haley neglects to mention this.) And nonproliferation experts say that in the years following Trump’s withdrawal—and his imposition of new sanctions on Tehran—Iran moved closer to a nuclear weapon. A year after Trump’s announcement, Iran went back to nuclear activities that had been curbed by the accord. As Foreign Policy summed it up, “Tehran has resumed its enrichment of uranium, restarted research and development on advanced centrifuges, and expanded its stockpile of nuclear fuel, cutting in half the time it would need to produce enough weapons-grade fuel to build a nuclear bomb.” Even in her book, Haley acknowledges that “the Iranian regime has begun enriching uranium beyond the level permitted in the agreement.” So what was the big win for Haley here? Her actions at the UN did nothing to restrain Iran.

Haley and her campaign crow that at the UN she battled America’s foes and prevailed. But her account of her heroic exploits at the international body are overblown. More important, her actions did not address the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran that imperil the United States and its allies. Her book demonstrates she can talk tough; it also shows she has a tough time sticking to the truth. 

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