Newsmaker: Nikki Haley

America’s UN ambassador, whose remarks set the scene for US military action against Syria, is a force to reckon with.

Nikki Haley is the first woman of Indian origin to serve as a state governor. She relinquished her South Carolina post to become America’s UN ambassador. Don Emmert / AFP
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When Nikki Haley rose to her feet at the United Nations Security Council and waved horrendous photographs of children killed in the Syrian chemical attack, it was a gesture that shocked even a world wearied by war's ugly imagery.

Back in her seat, America’s UN ambassador then chose words of equivalent force, setting the scene for the swift military action against Bashar Al Assad’s regime ordered by her president, Donald Trump.

Humanity, she declared, meant nothing to a “barbaric” Syrian government. How many more children had to die before Russia, Assad’s staunch ally, cared enough to restrain him?

“We cannot close our eyes to these pictures,” she said. “We cannot close our minds to our responsibility to act.”

Not everyone supported the air strikes that followed. Not everyone was persuaded that it was shown beyond doubt that Assad’s forces had been behind the despicable of act killing scores of civilians, many of them children.

But as Haley reminded UN delegates, the attack bore all the hallmarks of Assad’s willingness to use chemical weapons against his own people, as verified by the Security Council’s own independent investigators.

With her powerful intervention, America’s first woman of Indian origin to serve as a state governor – her native South Carolina – sent the bluntest of messages.

Not only did her words, and the action that followed, show her country’s unexpectedly renewed appetite for assuming the role of the world’s policeman, but they also underlined a personal commitment to ensure the UN is no longer, as Trump put it, “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time”.

Haley stood down as South Carolina’s governor to accept the post. However long her term survives Trump’s capriciousness or the consequences of her willingness to stand up to him, she appears to want the UN to matter again.

If that is her mission, and she succeeds, her achievement would deliver a sharp response to those who suspected shunting her off to New York, and an international body for which he has little affection, was just Trump’s way of keeping a troublesome figure at arm’s length.

Haley, 45, began life as Nimrata Randhawa, one of four children of well-­educated, ambitious Indian Sikhs who emigrated from Punjab to the United States via Canada in the 1960s.

If her name seems westernised, it isn’t. Her parents say she was always called Nikki – her middle name – growing up. She takes her surname from her husband, Michael, an army officer in the South Carolina national guard who has served in Afghanistan.

The couple met at university and have two children. Haley still attends Sikh gurdwaras but has openly converted to Christianity.

As a child, she demonstrated a keen business sense. At 12, she was helping her mother with the accounts for a clothing shop that expanded into a prosperous concern. The precocious attention to bookkeeping has echoes of another shopkeeper’s daughter, the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and Haley evidently finds the comparison pleasing.

Listed last year among Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, Haley is on the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Despite her background, she supports firmness on immigration – though her position is not always firm enough for Trump – and opposes abortion except when a mother’s life is endangered. She favours a low-tax business environment unencumbered by trade unions.

On the other hand, she visibly struggles when trying, dutifully, to support Trump’s attempts to ban citizens of six Muslim countries from entering the US, and to halt arrivals of Syrian refugees.

“I will never support a Muslim ban,” she said in mid-March. “I don’t think we should ever ban anyone based on their religion. That is un-American … What the president is doing, everybody needs to realise … is saying, ‘let’s take a step back’.”

Attempting to defend Trump’s denial of entry to Syrian children, even after the chemical attacks, she raised the problem of vetting their parents, but did so without any trace of the comfortable eloquence she demonstrated at the UN.

Previously, Haley gave prominent support to a campaign leading to the removal of the confederate US flag from the South Carolina state capitol building after nine black people were killed by a white supremacist at a Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston.

That flag, with its perceived links to slavery and racism, was produced by a few Trump supporters – to Republican embarrassment – at election rallies.

Haley admitted the flag had “its place” but insisted this place was not at a state property intended to represent all the people of South Carolina.

Before Trump became the Republican candidate, there was talk of Haley as vice president. She said then she did not want the job and has done little to please the man who did secure the party’s nomination and become president.

In one bitter clash with Trump, 13 months ago, she challenged him to release his tax records.

One Trump retort, inevitably on Twitter, read: “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!” She chose a classic southern-states put-down in reply: “Bless your heart.”

On the pre-election campaign trail, Haley first supported the Florida senator Marco Rubio then the Texan senator Ted Cruz. Anyone but Trump, it seemed. But she made it clear she would ultimately back whoever prevailed as the Republican contender, Trump included.

On accepting her UN appointment, Haley cited – perhaps tellingly, given her differences with the new president – a “sense of duty”.

It is fascinating to ponder whether Trump sees her UN role as a suitable, safe exile from the heart of his administration, or feels he can rise above past squabbles and treat her as a rising star.

He may still not greatly admire the UN, but his decision to bomb Assad’s airbase undoubtedly gained moral support from Haley’s impressive performance before the Security Council.

Haley, inevitably, has detractors. Some observers have questioned her grasp of international affairs and her background in the populist right-wing Tea Party movement. The conservative pundit Ann Coulter – overlooking the fact that Haley was born in the US – once said: “I’d really like to like Nikki Haley, since she is a Republican. On the other hand, she is an immigrant and does not understand America’s history.”

Haley seems untroubled by such sniping. And she has a knack of finding a quote for every occasion. Intense pride in her parents’ achievement of the American dream is prominent among them: “My parents started a business out of the living room and, 30-plus years later, it’s a multimillion dollar company”.

But the search for her guiding principles leads back to her thoughts on religion: “I don’t think we should focus on what church that person walks into, but on what they do when they walk out.”

weekend@thenational.ae