Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Nikki Haley’s Hypocrisy and Faux Outrage Over Ukraine

The wannabe GOP presidential candidate’s foolish, self-serving, and pernicious remarks about Putin’s invasion.
March 10, 2022
Nikki Haley’s Hypocrisy and Faux Outrage Over Ukraine
Nikki Haley on Fox News, March 3, 2022.

Nikki Haley smells an opportunity. Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is getting ready to run for president in 2024, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given her a chance to talk about foreign policy. But Haley isn’t using that chance to educate the public or offer sound advice. She’s using it to do what she has always done: preen, moralize, and insult the intelligence of her audience.

Since the invasion began, Haley has been a regular on Fox News, talking tough and accusing President Biden of failing to take Vladimir Putin seriously. She pretends to have known all along that Putin would attack. “When an evil dictator thug says they’re going to do something, we need to believe them,” she told Dave Rubin in an interview posted on Monday. “Putin said he was going to take Ukraine, and he is.”

Haley is whitewashing her record. She didn’t think Putin would go through with the invasion. “Putin knows it’s costly, and he knows he can’t do it. This is him leveraging to see what he can get,” she told Brian Kilmeade on Jan. 26. “He doesn’t want to expand,” she went on, adding, “I don’t think Russia wants to go to war.” On Feb. 8, she told Bret Baier that Putin’s real plan was to cut a deal: “What Russia’s really trying to do is get us to not allow Ukraine into NATO.”

In the two months leading up to the invasion, as Putin massed forces on the Ukrainian border, Haley was preoccupied with China, not Russia. Her advocacy organization, Stand for America, hardly mentioned Ukraine. In op-eds, interviews, and tweets, she talked about China but largely ignored Russia.

When she did mention Ukraine, her comments were foolish, self-serving, or pernicious, On Jan. 31, she tweeted: “Biden should care about our own border as much as he claims to care about the Ukrainian border. #ProtectAmerica.” That message, parroting Trump’s isolationist rhetoric, undercut American resolve. It implied that the defense of Ukraine was disingenuous and was a substitute for protecting the United States.

Haley also blamed Biden for tempting Putin. On Feb. 7, as Putin was considering his options, she tweeted that the Russian president was correct to view Biden as soft. “The world’s worst dictators realize just how weak Joe Biden is. It’s why Russia is eyeing Ukraine,” she wrote. Her words didn’t just deflect responsibility from Putin. They also signaled that he need not fear American retaliation. On Feb. 23, just before the invasion, she accused Biden of “teasing” Putin with weakness—the kind of language that’s sometimes grotesquely applied to survivors of sex crimes. The next day, as the attack was underway, she again blamed Biden, claiming that he had given Putin “the green light.” “I don’t think Putin initially thought he wanted to go to war,” she asserted.

As America’s allies rallied to Ukraine’s defense, Haley insulted them. In an op-ed on Feb. 28, she called Germany “Europe’s biggest slacker.” On March 2, she ridiculed European countries that were sanctioning Russia and sending aid to Ukraine. “Biden was following the Europeans,” she scoffed on Fox News. “When you’re following the Europeans, who love to hug it out, that’s not saying very much.”

Haley did endorse sanctions against Russia. But instead of dangling them over Putin’s head, with the threat of implementing them if he proceeded with the invasion, she said they should be applied before he went in. “Biden should have already put sanctions on Russia, just to deter them,” she told Newsmax on Feb. 1. On Sunday, during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, she reiterated that “we should have done all this before Putin did his first move.” By chastising Biden for failing to impose sanctions preemptively, Haley is trying to look tougher and savvier than he is. But that’s not how deterrence works. If you hit the enemy up front with everything you have—before he does what you’re trying to discourage—he has nothing more to fear from you. You’ve lost your leverage.

Like other critics of Putin, Haley thinks Russia should be ousted from the U.N. Human Rights Council. But if Russia won’t leave, her second choice is to oust the United States. “Either Russia goes, or the U.S. goes. Biden has to make a choice,” she told Kilmeade on March 1. Again, this is the kind of gesture that’s meant to sound macho but is counterproductive. It would give Russia more freedom to dominate and abuse the council.

Haley’s most preposterous complaint is that Biden shouldn’t have asked China to help dissuade Putin from attacking Ukraine. “I was mortified that Biden went so far as asking China for help with Russia,” she sputtered on Meet the Press. “You never ask an enemy for help with another enemy.”

That’s a shockingly illiterate statement. It contradicts the entire history of crisis diplomacy, most notably the U.S./U.K.-Soviet alliance against Hitler. (As Winston Churchill put it: “If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”) And it wasn’t a slip: Haley has repeated it in other interviews since the war in Ukraine began. “You never go ask an enemy for help with another enemy,” she told Kilmeade on March 1. In another Fox News interview, she asked indignantly: “When you’re going to one enemy to get help with another enemy, do you know how weak that looks?”

Haley’s professed outrage about the overture to Beijing is completely fake. As she has acknowledged in moments of candor, the Chinese government had leverage over Russia’s decision and doesn’t like the way Russia has conducted the war. So she knows the bid for China’s assistance was the right move. Furthermore, she continues to boast that “when I was at the U.N., we passed three sets of massive sanctions against North Korea.” Haley obtained those sanctions by collaborating with Chinese and Russian diplomats—yet she now calls Biden’s use of the same tactic “naïve,” “weak,” and “humiliating.” Last week, she told Fox News, “The idea that Biden would go ask China for help with Russia sickens me to my core.” A politician who lies to your face as she talks about her “core” is showing you she has no core.

She also has no courage. It’s easy for American politicians to talk trash about Putin. What’s hard is to stand up for democracy and the rule of law when those principles are threatened by a man who can derail your career. In Haley’s case, that man is Trump, not Putin. And when Haley is asked about Trump’s sabotage of NATO, his praise for Putin, and his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, her response is thoroughly craven. “I’m not a fan of Republicans going against Republicans,” she pleads.

On Meet the Press, Haley chided liberals for excusing Putin and failing to take his threats seriously. “When tyrants speak, we should listen,” she proclaimed. But Haley doesn’t apply that rule in her own country. When Chuck Todd pointed out that Trump had repeatedly protected and excused Putin—dragging his heels on congressionally mandated sanctions in 2017, delaying more sanctions in 2018, and withholding military aid to Ukraine in 2019—Haley insisted that what Trump had said or “tried” didn’t matter. All that mattered, she argued, was that the aid and the sanctions had eventually gone through. She falsely credited Trump for those aid and sanctions packages, and she pledged that in 2024, “If President Trump runs, I will not run.”

None of what Haley is saying about Ukraine is sincere. She knows that Trump, who directly betrayed her to delay sanctions against Russia, is a stooge for Putin. She knows we can stand up for Ukraine’s borders without surrendering our own. She knows it’s wise to seek one enemy’s help against another. She knows deterrence depends on holding penalties in reserve.

So why does she say the opposite? Because although she understands all of this, she thinks you don’t. She thinks you’re too dumb to know the difference.

Americans aren’t stupid,” Haley told Fox News a week ago. She said of Biden: “He needs to quit treating them like they are.”

It’s too bad Haley doesn’t believe that. It’s too bad that for her, telling people they’re not stupid is just another part of the act.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.