Friday, April 28, 2017


A headline in The New York Times reads, "State Department Wants to Clear Nikki Haley’s Remarks Before She Speaks."

The obvious response to that is relief: Donald Trump has been president for more than three months, during which time he's had to deal with a number of serious international issues, and all this time his UN ambassador has apparently been acting acting on her own, rather than coordinating her remarks with the rest of the administration. This is because the administration doesn't seem to know what it thinks on most issues until the president impulsively provides guidance -- which may change at any minute. Maybe someone has finally figured out that this is a bad way to run a presidency.

But the fact that it's impossible even for members of Trump's foreign policy team to know what his policies are isn't the subject of this story. The subject is administration infighting -- as if that's the only reason Haley's remarks are now going to be vetted:
The United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, has often been the first, most outspoken member of the Trump administration to weigh in on key foreign policy issues, on everything from military strikes on Syria to sanctions against Russia and how to approach human rights.

Much of that has come as a surprise to the State Department, and the Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson, has often been far from the limelight.

Now, in an apparent attempt to foster greater coherence in American foreign policy, State Department officials are urging her aides to ensure her public remarks are cleared by Washington first.
See? It's not about creating some sort of order out of chaos. It's a gossipy story about rivalries.
An email drafted by State Department diplomats urged Ms. Haley’s office to rely on “building blocks” written by the department to prepare her remarks....
But nowhere are we told that the administration doesn't seem to have had any policy "building blocks" until now.
The request underlines the vastly contrasting styles of the Trump administration’s two top diplomats, Ms. Haley and Mr. Tillerson, who will appear together for the first time on Friday at a United Nations Security Council meeting devoted to North Korea. It will be Mr. Tillerson’s first time inserting himself into Ms. Haley’s world since she so publicly entered his.

Ms. Haley is an outspoken former governor who has been on Sunday talk shows and given interviews to several television news outlets. Mr. Tillerson is a former oil company executive who has kept a noticeably low profile.

The contrast was on sharp display when Ms. Haley chaperoned the 14 members of the Security Council on a visit to the White House on Monday. Neither Mr. Tillerson nor any of his aides were present, with a spokesman explaining that his schedule “did not enable him to participate.”

Mr. Tillerson has skipped meetings with world leaders at the White House too, though he continues to spend considerable time with President Trump. His defenders say that Mr. Tillerson is confident of the president’s support and that Mr. Tillerson does not believe he needs to appear in front of reporters or TV cameras to confirm his place as the nation’s chief diplomat.

“Any notion that there’s some kind of competition between Haley and Tillerson is laughable,” said James J. Carafano, a Heritage Foundation fellow and a member of the Trump transition team. “She’s filling a role and is comfortable in that role, and I don’t think Tillerson feels threatened by that.”
All this is important -- why does Tillerson seem disengaged when, after all, he's the secretary of state? But you have to read between the lines to understand the bigger problem.

There's a fleeting reference to the administration's staffing failures:
While Ms. Haley is a cabinet-level official and within the State Department’s hierarchy, she would normally have four bosses, including an assistant secretary for international organizations who coordinates between New York and Washington. That role is currently filled in a temporary capacity by a career foreign service officer.
But this comes out of nowhere, and we're never told the reason for it -- that the administration is either too incompetent to get the jobs filled or it refuses to fill them, out of a Steve Bannon desire to "deconstruct the administrative state."

Eventually we're given a hint of what a normal administration would be like -- but even that is couched in Washington gossip:
Friction between the secretary of state and the United Nations ambassador is routine, particularly when the ambassador is a politician.

Thomas Pickering, a United Nations ambassador under President George H. W. Bush, said the relationship with Washington was always a challenge during his tenure. One constant problem for him, he said, was that Washington created the day’s talking points around 11 a.m. but Security Council meetings usually started around 9:45 a.m., an event that was often preceded by a press briefing.

“So I had to work off the guidance from the day before or get out in front of Washington,” he said.

In the end, Mr. Pickering learned that he had lost his job at the United Nations from a story in The Washington Post. “So clearly the relationship is not always easy,” he said with a laugh.
Stop -- let's go back to that bit about "the day's talking points." In the Trump White House, are there daily talking points? It certainly doesn't seem that way. There should be, but policy in the Trump administration seems to be "whatever the president said or tweeted five minutes ago, which might directly contradict what he said or tweeted 24 hours ago, and which might be based on nothing other than the last thing he saw on cable TV, or his last conversation with Jared Kushner" (whose name never appears in this story even though other reports suggest that he has a bigger foreign policy portfolio than either Haley or Tillerson).

If Haley has been making policy positions up as she goes along because there aren't any policy positions otherwise, say so. Don't treat this as just a "who's in, who's out" story.

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