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Phyllis Bennis says the choice reflects the imponderable, opaque realities of the decisions made by Trump’s transition team

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KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore. President elect Donald Trump has begun announcing the members of his eventual cabinet, some of which have horrified progressives such as the nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. But Trump isn’t opposed to bringing in other conservatives who were critical of him like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley who is his pick to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. [VIDEO START] FARHAN HAQ: We are aware of the naming of Nikki Haley, and its someone with whom officials here are acquainted in terms of being aware of her position on many issues including the laudable comments she made following the horrifying racist shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. Having said that, the only basic comment we have is that it’s heartening to see an effort to get the position of the Representative to the United Nations filled as quickly or named as quickly as this. So, that’s a good sign for the future. [VIDEO END] BROWN: That was Farhan Haq. He is the UN Deputy Ambassador to the Secretary General So Haley is the first woman to serve as Governor of South Carolina, she’s only the second ever Asian-American to be elected as Governor of a state. She came to office in 2011, she was re-elected to a second term in 2014. She is the youngest serving Governor in the country but underneath her impressive resume, her policies including lack of foreign policy, formal policy experience that is, have given many people real concerns. Joining us today is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow and she’s also the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is also the author of many books including her most recent book titled Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN. Phyllis, thank you for being here. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Kim. BROWN: So, Phyllis, is Nikki Haley a good pick for this position? BENNIS: No. But given what we know about the intended foreign policy of the Trump administration, which is not frankly a lot, we don’t know how this will play out. There’s a way in which the US Ambassador becomes a very powerful figure at the United Nations because they represent the most powerful member state of the UN. But it’s also true that who that person is can determine a lot about whether it’s easier or harder for the US to get its way. So, for example when President Bush had appointed as a recess appointment, John Bolton, the militaristic neo-con who had absolute disdain for the United Nations, he was also very much of a bully. And was very much resented around UN headquarters. So, it made it easier in a certain way to mobilize opposition to his policies. When he was replaced by the very experienced, courtly, multilingual, diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad an Afghan who became a US citizen, was very well-liked personally around the UN, suddenly it was much harder to mobilize opposition to those same terrible policies. So, who the person is, does matter. The problem we have with somebody like Governor Nikki Haley, she has absolutely zero foreign policy experience beyond something like 8 business trips to promote South Carolina business around the world. But she has no diplomatic experience, no diplomatic history that we know of. So, it’s very hard to know exactly how she would play out in this role. BROWN: Well, there’s been some statements, some groups have already come out, opposed to her nomination, including the Center for Health and Gender Equality, released a statement today which details Governor Haley’s opposition to equal rights for LGBTQ Americans plus it also notes how she cut funding for HIV testing and prevention in her state, despite the fact that South Carolina saw rates of HIV infections go up. And we all know that United Nations work is usually in the opposite direction of these stances, so how will she be able to push what we can assume to be a Trump agenda of similar policies. Being anti-gay, not in favor of trying to stem the tide of HIV infections around the world. I mean how is this going to play in New York with other Diplomats? BENNIS: It’s very hard to know. It’s hard to know how much of a priority she will put on those kinds of social issues. Issues of health, children, all the various human rights work of the United Nations, it’s very unlikely given her domestic record that that is something she is either familiar with or finds important. It would be inconsistent I would say with her record. On the other hand, in recent years, the role of the UN Ambassador from the United States has been far more focused on building or attempting to build, often, luckily without success in my view, building UN support for US wars, US military initiatives. Again, Haley is not somebody who has significant experience with the military, with foreign policy in terms of putting together global coalitions. When Donald Trump described her as somebody who’s known for being able to pull people together, that doesn’t mean she has any experience of dealing with nation states and their representatives at the UN who have their own interests to defend and what it takes to put together a so-called UN coalition something like that. I think in the statement we heard, I wasn’t able to see it, but from the voice it sounded like Farhan Haq at the United Nations who’s a longtime UN Spokesman who is being very cautious saying that it’s a good thing that the position is being taken seriously and somebody is being identified quickly, but they had nothing more to say about that beyond her one experience of supporting the removal of the Confederate Flag after, not before but after the horrific murders in South Carolina 2 years ago. BROWN: So, it also must be noted that this position, the Ambassador to the United Nations, does need Senate confirmation. Because Trump is appointing Governor Haley, it’s not a guarantee that she will get the position but it is looking very likely. But she will be having to negotiate with and interact with people who are lifetime Diplomats. I’m thinking of the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, who I believe has been in the position for 10 years or more. And the United States is going to have its hands full on the international stage when we’re talking about issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Donald Trump has said that he will pull out of. Also, the ongoing conflicts in Syria, in Iraq. Governor Nikki Haley comes from the state legislature prior to becoming Governor. BENNIS: That’s not necessarily an absolute deal breaker. I think if the Senate were concerned first and foremost about putting in that office, and it is now a cabinet level position, as well, if they were serious about taking the United Nations seriously, they would insist on an experienced diplomat, somebody who can navigate these very complicated situations like the crisis in and around Syria which involves the war ongoing in Iraq, the war in Yemen. All of these are connected. Nikki Haley has no experience that we’re aware of, at least no publicly known experience, with any of these issues. Now there have been UN ambassadors in the past Madeleine Albright comes to mind who was not an experienced Diplomat, she was an experienced academic on some of these issues. As far as we know, Nikki Haley is not somebody who has either academic training in diplomacy or in foreign affairs, or an experience with it. This is consistent, I’m afraid, with Donald Trump’s view that loyalty in some sense, I mean we know that she was not a supporter of Trump, until very, very recently but that some kind of what he defines as political loyalty is the only consideration and competency does not seem to be high on the agenda. BROWN: Well, let’s talk about how this could be a strategic move for Donald Trump himself. After all, Nikki Haley was one of the earlier critics of Donald Trump, as you mentioned she did come around to support him after he had already achieved the Republican nomination but her criticism of him drew the ire of prominent conservative Ann Coulter who, at one point, suggested that Trump deport Nikki Haley. BENNIS: That’s because she’s not a white American citizen, despite having been born in the United States, she is of Indian origin and I would assume that Ann Coulter, like many others of her type believe that no one who is not white perhaps who is the child of immigrants should be deported. But it is important to recognize that what Governor Haley had said about Donald Trump was quite a severe criticism. She said that Trump represents everything that a Governor doesn’t want to see in a president. So, it was a rather harsh critique that she made but it was very much in the context of her endorsement of Cruz and Rubio sequentially, before she finally came around to endorse Donald Trump as a presumably loyal Republican. BROWN: But as Trump has made her as his selection for the ambassador to the United Nations, there’s also talk about Mitt Romney, possibly being his selection for Secretary of State, is Trump being smart here by bringing in these people who criticized him but I also must point out that this could actually work out for Donald Trump, should Governor Haley be confirmed because her Lieutenant Governor McMaster of South Carolina was one of the first to actually come out and support and endorse Donald Trump during the primary. I believe he actually even delivered the speech for him at the Republican National Convention so- BENNIS: I don’t think that the question of a Southern Governor being a longtime supporter of Trump would be enough to put forward somebody who is clearly not competent for this job. Now, whether that was in his mind when he did it, we don’t know. This is one of these, imponderable, opaque realities of how decisions are being made in this transition team. It’s the opposite of transparent. So, it’s not impossible but that would be an absolute travesty in terms of the signal that it sends to the rest of the world that we’re prepared to send to the United Nations, somebody clearly not experienced in diplomacy, in foreign affairs, in international relations, in the history of the wars that are now raging across the world with none of those things for the reason to get a supporter who was her deputy in a higher position. If that were to be the case, it would be a laughing stock at the United Nations and a great deal of appropriate resentment by other countries who take very seriously the question of who gets sent to represent their country at the UN. BROWN: So, Phyllis, worst case scenario here, how could Nikki Haley completely botch this, should she actually be confirmed in this position? BENNIS: You know, this all depends on something that is also unknown. Which is how much power various cabinet members of the Trump cabinet are going to have. Whether that’s the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Head of the Energy Department, the Head of Defense, any of these. We just don’t know. And that certainly goes for the United Nations Ambassador. How much leeway is she going to have to make decisions it may be that she is going to take her orders directly from the White House. It may be that she is going to have to act as a megaphone rather than as a Diplomat, in which case it will be a symbol to the rest of the world that the United States is not taking the UN seriously at all. That would be huge botching, as you say, of the position. But it would not be something that Governor Haley would be making the decision about, it would be something that President Trump had made the decision about. Now, there is certainly the possibility that as an unknown, a neophyte without significant experience, if she’s a smart person, she may well be, she could get a quick cram course in the next few weeks to learn the basics of what she’s going to need to know going in and hire a very smart number of deputy Ambassadors to play the substantive role that she may not be prepared to play. If she plays the symbolic role and the others make the actual decisions and serve on the committees and do the work, that’s one way to deal with it. We just don’t know how much seriousness the Trump administration will view the United Nations. BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Phyllis Bennis, she is the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Phyllis we appreciate your insight today, thank you. BENNIS: Thank you, Kim. BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.