When confirmed as UN ambassador, she will be the first-ever Indian-American to hold a Cabinet-level position
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, January 18, 2017 – Given the deep political divide in America, the Senate confirmation hearing for South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican, as the next US Ambassador to the United Nations went without a hitch or hurdle.
The majority of Senators on the panel, presided over by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (Republican – Tennessee), were impressed by her background and track record. In fact, at the end of the hearing which extended well over three hours, Senator Corker said, “I think you’ve impressed everybody in the individual meetings you’ve had. I’m certain you’re going to be confirmed overwhelmingly”.
The full Senate could vote on her nomination as early as next week.
Haley, 44, is a trailblazer – she is the first female and first minority Governor of South Carolina. And, when confirmed by the US Senate, she will be the first-ever Indian-American to hold a cabinet-level position.
Wednesday morning, she was accompanied to the hearing by her family members: Sikh parents – father Ajit Singh Randhawa and mother Raj Kaur Randhawa; husband Michael Haley and their son Nalin; in-laws; younger brother; elder brother and his wife. Her Indian heritage was a matter of pride and strength. The most powerful senators in the world wanted to hear her unique story and she didn’t disappoint. She spoke of growing up in rural South Carolina after her parents migrated from Punjab, India, of her father who wore a turban and mother who donned a saree, of how she rose to be Governor of her home state in a country which values meritocracy.
“My story is an American story”, she said. “I was born in Bamberg, South Carolina, the daughter of immigrants from Punjab, India. My parents had comfortable lives in India, but they chose to give up those comforts and move to America with just eight dollars because of the freedoms and opportunities this country offers. Our family’s experience is unique, but it is also familiar because it is one that has been repeated many times, by many people, in American history”.
Haley dwelt on the challenges of growing up in a small rural community in the South. “We were not white enough to be white, not black enough to be black. My father wore a turban, my mother a saree. Our new neighbors didn’t quite know what to make of us and so, we faced challenges. But those challenges paled next to the abundance of opportunities in front of us”, she told the Senate Committee.
And the lawmakers were all ears. After all, it was a fascinating true story! “My Dad was a professor at a small, historically black college”, Haley recalled. “My Mom was a social studies teacher and started a clothing store from scratch. I started doing the books for the family business when I was thirteen”. She considered it a privilege to avail of the educational opportunities in America. “I am painfully aware that the chance for 13-year-old girls to read and learn and grow is something that does not exist in far too many places around the world today”, she told the Senate panel.
Haley went on to serve in the South Carolina General Assembly and is currently in her second term as Governor of the state.
Now, she has her eyes on the world stage!
Throughout her testimony, Haley underscored the need to reform the UN. “We must build an international institution that honors America’s commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights”, she stressed.
At the hearing, she denied any plans to implement a Muslim registry which Trump proposed on the campaign trail, and made it clear she would not support one.
“I don’t think there should be any registry based on religion”, she said. “What we do need to do is know which countries are a threat and those are the ones we need to watch and be careful and vet”.
When pressed on about Trump’s suggestion, she noted, it is “natural for an incoming president to look at everything and to say things”, but “once you govern, it becomes very different”.
She emphasized, “Once the president-elect gets to hear from his national security team, that will be most important. And that’s what we are going to have to do”, she said. We have to “educate, inform him of what we know” and advice him of strategies, she added.
As Governor, she rejected a proposal to allow Syrian refugees to settle in South Carolina. At the hearing, she defended her decision, disclosing that she met with FBI Director James Comey who told her the refugees could not be properly vetted.
On the contentious issue of climate change, she said, it “will always be on the table”. At the same time, she circumvented questions about her position on the Paris agreement saying it could be perilous for industries and workers. She mentioned that the incoming administration will consider solutions to global warming insofar as they don’t affect American business.
“I think the climate change issue should always be on the table, but we don’t want the Paris agreement to interfere with our economy”, she underscored, echoing the views expressed by Trump.
Some senators conveyed concern about her lack of experience in foreign policy. Anticipating their apprehension, in her opening remarks Haley said, “Like most government agencies, the United Nations could benefit from a fresh set of eyes. I will take an outsider’s look at the institution. As I have in every challenge in my life, I will come to the UN to work – and to work smart”, she pledged.
Haley acknowledged that while “international diplomacy is a new area” for her, “diplomacy itself is not new”.
She believed there is nothing more important to a governor’s success than the “ability to unite those with different backgrounds, viewpoints and objectives behind a common purpose. For six years, that has been my work, day after day, in times of celebration and in times of great tragedy”, she said.
“I have negotiated deals with some of the largest corporations in the world and convinced them to make South Carolina their home. I have been the Chief Executive of a government with more than 67,000 employees and an annual budget of more than 26 billion dollars. And we have achieved real results. South Carolina is a different, stronger, better place than it was six years ago”, she declared.
Announcing her nomination soon after the election, in November, President-elect Donald Trump said, Haley “has a proven track record of bringing people together regardless of background or party affiliation to move critical policies forward for the betterment of her state and our country. She is also a proven deal-maker, and we look to be making plenty of deals. She will be a great leader representing us on the world stage”.
Haley herself is a former critic of Trump. During the GOP primary race, she openly disavowed the Republican front-runner and their rapport was far from amiable. A month before the election, she softened her stance and announced she would vote for him.
Regarding her reasons for accepting the UN post, she cited a “sense of duty”, noting that the US “faces enormous challenges here at home and internationally”.
“When the President believes you have a major contribution to make to the welfare of our nation, and to our nation’s standing in the world, that is a calling that is important to heed”, she said. Another reason she mentioned was a sense of satisfaction for all that has been “achieved in our state in the last six years and the knowledge that we are on a very strong footing”.
Differences with her boss-to-be remain as was evident at the Senate hearing. Haley spoke of a trust deficit with Russia which is quite unlike Trump who seems keen to build a partnership with Moscow. She commended NATO, the North Atlantic Alliance which Trump has repeatedly called obsolete.
On Israel, the two see eye-to-eye. Haley spent considerable time at the hearing lashing out at the UN for its bias against Israel. She supports Trump’s position to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city contested by both Israelis and Palestinians. Such views clearly resonate on Capitol Hill – senators were pleased with Haley’s vocal support of long-time American ally Israel.
Both the Republican senators from her home state of South Carolina delivered introductory remarks in strong support of her nomination as UN ambassador.
Senator Tim Scott noted, “Bringing people together under the worst of times, under the most difficult of conditions, is something that Haley specializes in”. Lindsey Graham believed she “is the right person at the right time” as “she represents a combination of intellect, determination, grace and an understanding of America that the world needs to hear”.
Haley will continue to serve as governor of South Carolina until the Senate confirms her nomination.