Democrats prep attack on Nikki Haley's inexperience for UN job

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will argue that Nikki Haley is too inexperienced to be America’s ambassador to the United Nations, questioning whether she’s prepared to take on the role as one of the country’s leading voices on foreign policy.

“This is not the model UN; this is the real UN,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and a member of the committee, after meeting with the South Carolina governor for 45 minutes Tuesday afternoon. He raised concerns about her preparedness and knowledge of foreign issues.

As he said, the adversaries of the United States in UN discussions will be “experienced” and “hard-edged.”

As an example, he said, Haley apparently was stumped during their meeting by this question: Why might Russia and China have stood with the United States during the Iranian nuclear negotiations?

As Coons talked about it afterward, it was almost a softball. And, he added, the answer was out there: China and Russia have sincere and deep concerns about terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and seeing the Iranian nuclear program diminished served their interests and assuaged their fears. But, he added, “She did not have that answer.”

It was, he said, “disturbing.” In fact, he said, “She did not seem to have a complete grasp of the latest developments” on a number of issues.

According to her planned opening statement, obtained by Reuters, Haley will offer some praise for the UN, in line with President-Elect Donald Trump’s disdain for the international body. But she will take a swing at the UN’s actions against U.S. ally Israel, a rallying point for conservatives and the incoming Trump administration.

While Democrats will pose pointed questions, Haley isn’t expected to face the problems besieging other Trump nominees. The position is not traditionally a launching pad for a political career. Haley is seen as less problematic by Democrats than other Trump nominees – and is generally well liked by Republicans in the Senate.

In short, she is not Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil CEO, who was grilled for nine hours about his allegedly tight ties to Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, his views on climate change and how his corporate background might challenge his loyalty to the United States.

Haley won’t arrive in her hearing with that baggage.

But she will be questioned. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee, said when Haley was nominated that Trump “will need a national security team with strong international experience.”

The issues she would face at the United Nations are largely driven by current events, but she is likely to face questions on climate change and on Syria, Russia and Ukraine.

Stephen Miles, director of the D.C.-based progressive advocacy group Win Without War, said inexperience isn’t a good thing in a UN ambassador.

“Governor Haley’s lack of experience on the global stage is troubling given the importance of a strong American presence at the United Nations,” he said.

Haley also has been praised by Democrats around the country for her actions following the massacre of eight church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. Haley was the public face of an effort in her state to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds following the killings. Dylann Roof, an avowed racist, was recently convicted in those murders and sentenced to death.

Coons praised her for that effort, and said that many of her answers to his foreign policy questions indicated someone who views their role as “informing the choices of the president” and not simply as re-enforcing preconceived notions.

Brett Schaefer, an expert on United Nations at the conservative D.C.-based think tank The Heritage Foundation, said little is known of what to expect of Haley in this new position because little is known of precisely what the job will entail.

“It’s difficult to know specifically what a Trump administration will ask of Haley,” he said. “The word is she will be a cabinet member, meaning she will be in the room for important foreign policy discussions.”

In past administrations, he said, the working arrangement between a Secretary of State and a UN ambassador who is in the cabinet has proven to be a delicate balance.

“They will want to avoid discord, and that means they will clearly define their portfolios,” he said. “Her portfolio, likely, will be limited to what goes on in New York.”

The issues at the U.N. are numerous, and tricky, though, so she won’t lack for issues. For instance, the gap between the climate change mindset of the Trump administration and that of the United Nations, means she would likely spend a lot of time working on that. She would undoubtedly spend time working on the U.S. relationship with Israel. Still, work at the UN is driven by what’s happening around the world. In general, he said Republicans always approach the United Nations differently than Democrats.

“There will be a shift,” he said. “Democrats tend to embrace international organizations and try to cajole them towards the U.S. position, while Republicans tend to be a bit more aggressive.”

Matthew Schofield: 202-383-6066, @mattschodcnews