State Department to Nikki Haley: Before you say anything important on foreign policy, clear it with us first

Inevitable, especially now that North Korea is front and center in U.S. foreign policy. Mixed signals are dangerous in normal diplomacy, potentially cataclysmic when dealing with a nuclear-armed cult.

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.

Her comments should be “re-cleared with Washington if they are substantively different from the building blocks, or if they are on a high-profile issue such as Syria, Iran, Israel-Palestine, or the D.P.R.K.,” added the email, the text of which was seen by The Times. D.P.R.K. refers to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea…

Ms. Haley has by no means replaced Mr. Tillerson as the administration’s preferred voice on foreign affairs, according to a top White House aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Indeed, some in the White House see her as seeking a bit too much attention as the administration formulates its foreign policy, the official said, noting that it is not seen as a problem that needs an immediate solution.

Tillerson, not Haley, delivered the United States’s remarks at today’s special UN Security Council meeting on North Korea. In hindsight, it’s amazing that this dynamic of Haley operating as a free agent with a higher public profile than the Secretary of State went on as long as it did without Tillerson pulling rank. Less than three weeks ago they were on the Sunday morning shows opposite each other saying seemingly contradictory things about Syria, Haley insisting that there’s no way peace can come to the country with Assad still in power and Tillerson insisting that that’s a question for Syrians to decide. Of the two, Tillerson seems more in sync with Trump on foreign policy than Haley does: She looks to be a traditional Rubio-style hawk whereas he, the former friend of Russia in his Exxon days, is less orthodox.

As I said, though, the catalyst for getting her “on message” has less to do with egos than with needing all the major players on the same page in the signals they’re sending to the lunatic in Pyongyang. A few days ago Haley said something on TV that sounded a lot like a “red line,” something for which the Pentagon — and seemingly everyone else in the administration — was unprepared:

“If you see [Kim] attack a military base, if you see some sort of intercontinental ballistic missile, obviously, we’re going to do that,” Haley told NBC News. Those remarks caught senior U.S. defense officials unawares. The Trump administration had previously kept details deliberately vague, saying only that all options are on the table if Pyongyang steps out of line…

Multiple defense officials told The Daily Beast that they weren’t expecting Haley to signal to the world what might trigger an armed American response. There’s a daily phone call between the different U.S. agencies to align or share messages, but this never came up, one of them said.

Set a red line and suddenly not only is your country’s prestige on the line in terms of your willingness to enforce it (hi, Barack!) but it might tempt Kim to call your bluff by defiantly crossing it. What then? Hence the direction today for Haley to stick to the “building blocks.”

Here’s Tillerson’s address to the UN reiterating the very basic point that the U.S. simply isn’t going to hand the North Korean death cult the power to incinerate Honolulu or San Francisco by letting it develop nuclear-tipped ICBMs. The closer they get to miniaturizing a bomb and building a reliable missile with global range, the more certain war is. You can dislike the fact that Trump is talking openly about the possibility of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea while recognizing that it’s inevitable if they don’t denuclearize. That was the point of today’s speech — Tillerson dangled the possibility of direct talks between the U.S. and the NorKs but only if Kim first takes “concrete steps” to end his weapons program. He also asked the UN to tighten existing sanctions and impose new ones on countries that are enabling North Korea nuclear ambitions, again in hopes of bringing Kim to the table. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s very similar to Obama’s policy — and how could it not be, given how few cards the U.S. has to play against North Korea short of war? But it’s just a delaying tactic, really. Defying the U.S. by building a nuclear equalizer is all that’s left of North Korea’s national prestige; it’s unimaginable that the leadership would ever humble itself by capitulating. All Tillerson’s doing is kicking the can on a horrendous war as long as he can before he can’t anymore.