Nikki Haley: If the UN doesn’t act against Assad for this chemical attack, we might
Samantha Power spent her academic career arguing that the world has a responsibility to protect innocents from genocide, got appointed Obama’s ambassador to the UN because of it, then sat around doing nothing about Syria for four years because her boss couldn’t figure out a solution. Is that Haley’s fate too? Trump sure sounded like he cared in the Rose Garden this afternoon, but which Trump is the real one — today’s version or the one in 2013 who was screaming from the rooftops that the U.S. shouldn’t get involved in Syria?
Two points of note in Haley’s address below. One: Although Trump talked tough about Assad “crossing lines” in his presser, he said nothing about Russia’s role in propping him up. Haley observes no such niceties. She goes right at Putin here, saying at one point, “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Not for the first time, she appears to be running a conventional hawkish Republican foreign policy while Trump does his best to preserve some small chance of detente with Moscow. Two: She’s plain as she can be in the final minute of her speech that U.S. military action is on the table, warning the UN that if it can’t get its act together to do something about WMD attacks — and it can’t, thanks to Russia’s Security Council veto — then individual nations reserve the right to act unilaterally. Is Trump onboard with that? Is her nominal boss, Rex Tillerson? This is another bold pronouncement in the “red line” mold that places American credibility on the line. If Trump decides that bombing Assad would simply be too complicated with Russia on the other side and Kurdish forces preparing for an offensive against Raqqa, who’ll take Haley seriously anymore?
And by the way, when did Haley suddenly decide that getting tough with Assad was an urgent priority for the U.S.? Just six days ago, echoing Tillerson, she said this:
“You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters.
“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.”
In Ankara on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s longer-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.”
If Monday’s gas attack in Idlib had been the first time Assad used chemical weapons, you could call it a game-changer worthy of an instant reversal in America’s posture towards him. But of course it wasn’t; it’s not even close to being the most deadly WMD attack he’s responsible for. Haley’s backed herself into a corner here where, in theory, she’s for hitting Assad to punish him for the atrocity in Idlib but not for hitting him so hard that he’d topple over and then the U.S. would have to help manage the ensuing power vacuum. Which, actually, makes her approach similar to Obama’s in late summer 2013. (An “unbelievably small” strike, John Kerry promised at the time.)
By the way, Marco Rubio suggested in an interview this morning that Assad attacking Idlib with nerve gas so soon after Rex Tillerson stepped back from calling for regime change in Syria might not be a coincidence. In other words, Assad might have felt emboldened by the signal from the U.S. that he might remain in power long-term and decided to show off his newly secure status with some WMD. Why single out Tillerson for criticism, though? Rubio’s pal Nikki Haley said the same thing about Assad’s ouster no longer being top priority for the U.S. And they’re both carrying out a policy set (in theory) by Donald Trump, who somehow also escaped Rubio’s criticism. Tillerson, in fact, is arguably fourth on the diplomatic depth chart right now behind Trump, Haley, and jack-of-all-trades Jared Kushner. He’s an easy target for Rubio, but he’s not acting in a vacuum.