Is Nikki Haley a serious presidential candidate?

Nikki Haley wants to be president for no better reason than she wants to be president.

That’s more or less the media narrative, which has focused on her struggles to differentiate herself from other aspirants (see story here), beyond being a Republican who isn’t Trump (although she certainly sucked up to him, when it was convenient to do so, despite his abuses of office and power).

Her credentials aren’t compelling; she’s a former South Carolina governor and (under Trump) U.N. ambassador, but has been out of office for over 4 years, an unusual for presidential candidates (most are governors or senators).

A popular media meme is that candidates like her are really running for vice president, although you can legitimately wonder if that’s what she actually wants (although one can also legitimately suspect she’d settle for that).

Haley probably won’t become either president or vice president. America has never elected a woman president, and only one minority president, so she’s trying to climb a very steep hill. And if either Trump or DeSantis is the 2024 GOP nominee (although it’s awfully early to speculate about that), neither has any real reason to pick her.

Also standing in her way is an incumbent who apparently intends to run for re-election, and is very superior to her in experience, knowledge, and leadership ability. And while elections certainly can be decided by low-information voters, thinking people will realize that nearly all presidents face unforeseen crises (managing these is fundamentally what the job is), and Biden has done a masterful job of handling Putin’s aggression against Europe.

(I say “Europe” because Ukraine wasn’t Putin’s only target; he intended to retake all of Russia’s former eastern European satellite countries. A combination of Ukraine’s brave tenacity and Biden’s rallying of the West to support the Ukraine resistance has, so far, stopped the Russian invasion of eastern Europe in Ukraine’s eastern borderlands. Trump, by contrast, withheld military aid from Ukraine in an extortion attempt that resulted in the third presidential impeachment in American history.)

Biden deserves re-election; he has defended democracy, the free world, and Social Security and Medicare; and has significant domestic accomplishments as well (e.g., his infrastructure bill). In any case, Republicans can’t be trusted at this point (I don’t need to go into that). If Haley really wants to differentiate herself, she should begin by promising to rescue the GOP from the swamp of lying, corruption, and threats of political violence it has sunk into; but there’s no reason to believe she could do that even if she tried. But right now, she’s not trying.

However, let’s take a look at what she’s offering voters.

Haley has promised to “strip” foreign aid from countries “that hate us.”

Sounds good, but what does this mean?

In a New York Post op-ed (here) she said, “America spent $46 billion on foreign aid last year. … Taxpayers deserve to know where that money is going and what it’s doing. They will be shocked to find that much of it goes to fund anti-American countries and causes. As president, I’ll put a stop to this fiasco.”

An official government website (here) confirms the $46 billion figure, which is for 2022. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t include military assistance (say, to Ukraine); but nevertheless, Ukraine was the biggest single recipient (at least $8.9 billion), which isn’t surprising given that Russia has wrecked that country. The breakdown is $14.82 billion for humanitarian assistance, $11.87 billion for economic development, and $11.61 billion for health, plus much smaller amounts for categories like education ($1.1 billion) and environment ($76.7 million).

It’s not like this information is secret; any taxpayer who wants “to know where that money is going and what it’s doing” can look it up on the internet, if they know where to look. It took me about 5 minutes. And frankly I don’t see any of it going to “anti-American causes,” although you could argue that significant amounts go to “anti-American” countries. For example, Afghanistan was another major recipient (over $3.5 billion); but before you go “what the hell?” you may want to consider the fact that country is in a state of humanitarian crisis and this money is going to help the Afghan people, not the Taliban government, so maybe there are valid reasons for doing that.

Haley singled out Pakistan as an “enemy” country. That’s not accurate. Pakistan is a strategic ally of the U.S., albeit a quirky one. It’s also a nuclear-armed power (against India, and we don’t want that to get out of hand), and a buffer between China and the subcontinent. But apparent from Haley’s shallow (or nonexistent) understanding of our relationship with Pakistan (which is strange, for a former U.N. ambassador), we just don’t give a lot of money to Pakistan (less than $200 million in 2022, see details here), and one of the major chunks (over $38 million) was for “emergency response” (Pakistan suffered major flooding last year).

It would be nice if a would-be president at least knows what she’s doing, and why she’s doing it, before withdrawing from our alliances and good deeds in the world. Also, keep in mind that Congress approved all the foreign aid spending she’s criticizing, and it did go through a vetting and scrutiny process during the legislative process. So she’s talking about second-guessing what better-informed, and no less patriotic, members of our government put the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on. That’s not a good look, if you want to appear both smart and well-informed.

It’s okay, of course, to debate foreign aid — how much, what for, etc. Haley also said, “American taxpayers still give money to Communist China for ridiculous environment programs, despite the obvious threat China poses to Americans.” Well yes, we gave China around $1.9 million for “general environmental protection” in 2022 (details here), which probably is less than taxpayers are spending on Trump’s post-presidency Secret Service protection (hard to say, because the amount is classified, see details here); and presumably we’re doing it because there’s something in it for us. Another $1.067 of foreign aid to China went to the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (remember the “Free Tibet” bumper stickers? and the Dalai Lama?). So let’s have that debate — whether we should be spending this money for these purposes; but let’s include in that discussion why we’re doing it, and what we get from it of value to us, before cutting it off knee-jerk fashion (as Haley apparently wants to do).

You want a president who will make thoughtful decisions.

In talking about foreign aid, Haley had an opportunity to show off her knowledge of something she should know something about. But all she’s giving us is a bumper-sticker talking point that lacks substance. And her claim that “much” of our foreign aid goes to “anti-American countries and causes” is simply false, unless you consider Ukraine and starving Afghans “enemies.” I realize Biden fibs, too; all politicians do, and sterling honesty isn’t a trait we saw very much of in politics. But cheap shots are another level down, and by “cheap shot” I mean that I’m willing to bet President Haley would sign this $46 billion foreign aid bill if it were put in front of her.

For one thing, presidents don’t get to cherry-pick line items. They have to either sign the whole package or veto it. I’m sure she knows that. I’m making a pretty safe bet, because to veto the humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, or the $1.9 million to China for “general environmental protection” (their coal smoke does drift over our continent, and we end up breathing it), she has to cut off Ukraine.

A President Haley might do that, if she acts in line with much of her party’s thinking. While most Republicans in Congress appear to support continued military and civil assistance to Ukraine, some of the loudest voices in her party are acting like Putin is their best friend. If she wants to show leadership, she could start by telling them to shut up and sit down; or, if she’s with them, she should be honest with us and tell us she’ll feed the Ukrainians to the Russian bear if we see fit to elect her president.

Bottom line.

I see a candidate searching for an issue, and taking cheap shots at the foreign aid approved by Congress. The GOP-controlled House can certainly tamper with, or cut, that aid if they want to; we don’t need her in the Oval Office to do that. I give her, at best, a D grade on foreign aid. What else does she have, by way of reason to elect her president? I want to see something more than “I’m not a Democrat,” and “if elected, I’ll screw China.” I want to know what she’s going to do if China attacks Taiwan. I know what Biden would do in that eventuality, because he’s told us: He’ll defend Taiwan.

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan might happen on the next president’s watch, but a more likely crisis (in my opinion) is that China grows more assertive over the South China Sea, and one of its naval vessels bumps one of ours, our maybe a Chinese jet fighter shoots down one of our reconnaissance planes and takes the crew to China to “stand trial” for flying over “China’s sovereign territory.” What will President Haley do then? I want to know, because millions of American lives might depend on how she figures that one out (or whether she can).

Right now, I think President Biden — with his over 50 years in politics, decades of foreign policy experience as a senator and now as president, and engagement with the leaders of Russia and China — will know what to do, as well as anything can be done. He’s told us he won’t abandon the Taiwanese, and it’s a safe bet he won’t abandon our sailors and airmen. I think the odds are pretty good that the dictators in Moscow and Beijing would find him more formidable, and harder to push around, than the woman talking about cutting of $1.9 million of foreign aid to China because she can’t think of anything else to talk about, and needs a good talking point to breathe life in her struggling campaign.

I’m not saying I would never, under any circumstances, vote for her. Biden might not even be around to run in 2024. And I’ll give her credit for having more brains than her potential rival Mike Pence, on the grounds that running on a platform of cutting foreign aid is smarter than running on a platform of cutting Social Security and Medicare.

But she’s not as smart as Condoleeza Rice (see story here).

Related story: Nikki Haley’s idol is an incendiary rightwing pastor (read story here).

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