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Trump’s ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is the new darling of the neocons

She issued a scathing denunciation of the “flawed and very limited” Iran nuclear deal.

Remember how some people used to think that an isolationist Donald Trump would slay the zombie neocons of the Republican Party? “Here’s why Trump’s foreign policy terrifies neocons” (Washington Post). “The Neocons v Donald Trump” (New York Times). “Trump,” wrote the former Obama administration official Rosa Brooks in Foreign Policy, “has little time for… neoconservatives.”

Surprise! It was all a(nother) big lie. Consider Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who has emerged as the new darling of the neoconservatives. On 5 September, Haley addressed an audience at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) – home to the likes of Paul Wolfo­witz and John Bolton and dubbed “Neocon Central” by its critics – and issued a scathing denunciation of the “flawed and very limited” Iran nuclear deal.

The 2015 deal relaxed sanctions on Tehran in exchange for new restrictions on, and inspections of, Iran’s nuclear programme. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it was painstakingly negotiated between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US), the European Union and Iran. And yet the Republican-led US Congress passed a separate law insisting that the president notify lawmakers every 90 days whether Iran is in compliance. Trump last did so in July – but with great reluctance.

At the AEI, Haley argued that the president would be within his rights to refuse to re-certify the deal in October. Yet, in true Trumpian fashion, her speech in support of that argument contained a long list of demonstrable untruths, including: “Iran has been caught in multiple violations over the past year and a half”; “Inspectors are not allowed to look everywhere they should look”; and the deal “wasn’t supposed to be just about nuclear weapons”.

Report after report from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors has confirmed that Iran is sticking to the JCPOA terms. “Haley’s speech was the most compelling argument I have heard against the deal, but dishonest in key ways,” Ilan Goldenberg, who served as the Iran team chief in the Pentagon under Barack Obama, tells me. “Especially with regards to the quality of the inspections regime, which is incredibly rigorous and nearly unprecedented.”

It is worth noting that the 45-year-old Haley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, is a foreign policy neophyte: she was appointed as US ambassador to the UN despite having no experience of international affairs and diplomacy. Neocons, however, like empty vessels. The former Reagan officials Wolfowitz and Richard Perle jumped on board the know-nothing George W Bush’s campaign in 2000 and the pundit Bill Kristol helped persuade John McCain to make the fact-free Sarah Palin his running mate in 2008. As my old boss Arianna Huffington once observed of Palin: “She’s perfect for the neocons: likeable on the outside, a blank slate on the inside.”

Haley, to be fair, is much smarter and politically savvier than Bush and Palin. She has impressed liberals such as the philanthropist Melinda Gates, who told Quartz that the UN ambassador “is doing a particularly good job”, and the Eurasia Group director, Ian Bremmer, who calls her an “exceptionally talented politician”. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants, Sikhs from the Punjab, and, according to a recent Vox profile, “She stands out in an administration run chiefly by white men. Telegenic and poised, she has a knack for the limelight…”

In the short term, a US state department source tells me, the ambitious Haley has her eye on being secretary of state (the incumbent, Rex Tillerson, is losing Trump’s confidence). In the long term, she wants to run for president, no less. Her undermining of the Iran deal will only help boost her credentials in the eyes of the neocon-heavy Republican foreign policy establishment. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to lay the blame for a potential nuclear crisis with Iran solely on Haley. Trump has described the nuclear deal as “the worst deal ever” and calls Iran “the number one terror state”. He appointed not only the hawkish Haley to his cabinet but also his defence secretary, James Mattis, who once described the three biggest threats to US national security as “Iran, Iran, Iran”, as well as the CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, who has claimed that the Iranians are “professionals at cheating”.

Trump has long insisted there is a better deal to be done with Tehran. As ever, he is deluded. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted on 14 September: “The #JCPOA is not (re)negotiable. A ‘better’ deal is pure fantasy.” On 13 September, 80 of the world’s leading nuclear nonproliferation specialists issued a joint statement warning that “abandoning the deal” would “isolate the United States” and “increase the likelihood of wider conflict” in the Middle East.

Then there is the knock-on effect on North Korea. If, according to the US government, the Iran deal is not worth the paper it is written on, how can anyone expect Kim Jong-un to agree to a similar deal to curb his own nuclear programme? “Why, in the midst of a major nuclear crisis on North Korea, Trump would generate a new crisis on Iran is beyond me,” says Goldenberg.

The answer is as clear as it is dispiriting: Trump is obsessed with undoing Obama’s signature achievements at home (health care) and abroad (the Iran deal). A Republican president without a grand political vision of his own has made it his mission to do the exact opposite of whatever his Democratic predecessor did.

So, goodbye to the Iran deal. Welcome back to the neocons. And God help both the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, where millions of lives hang in the balance. Trump’s balance, that is. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left

Troy: Fall of a City. Photo: BBC
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In Troy: Fall of a City, all the men look as if they’re in a Calvin Klein ad

Rachel Cooke reviews Troy and 24 Hours in Police Custody.

In Troy: Fall of a City (BBC One, 9.10pm, 17 February) pretty much all the men look as if they’re appearing in a new Calvin Klein ad. The exception is King Priam (David Threlfall) who, perhaps to suggest his wisdom, favours a kind of gap year uniform: long beads, mirror-work blouses and, if his hair hasn’t been washed for a few days, a head scarf.

Muscly and sweaty and always having hot sex – usually in beds with the Homeric version of high-thread-count sheets, over which some lackey cast rose petals during turn-down service – these Trojan guys really are a ton of fun: as good at conversation as at bringing Spartan queens to orgasm.

Take Paris (Louis Hunter), a character particularly suggestive of the strong whiff of Obsession. Dispatched by his father Priam to the court of King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong) and his gorgeous, pouting wife, Helen (Bella Dayne, who is going to launch a thousand ships dressed in a high-necked feathered ensemble that brings to mind John Galliano in his pomp), he was certainly ready with the important questions. “How did you two get together?” he enquired, in the same tone you or I might ask friends about Tinder or Guardian Soulmates.

The BBC has begged journalists writing about Troy: Fall of a City to avoid spoilers; apparently, we must think of those coming to these myths “for the first time”. But I’m going to take a chance and assume that New Statesman readers are already well aware that Paris’s diplomatic mission to Sparta is soon to end in disaster, his having pinched Helen right from under Menelaus’s nose. I mean, even I know a bit about the Trojan War, and I went to a comprehensive school where the six embattled souls who wanted to learn Latin had to do so on a landing in their own time (like Menelaus, they knew all about public humiliation). Though in any case, surely Cassandra’s (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) weird hissy fits pretty much give the game away. Paris has only to lift his chiton (that’s a kind of tunic – and yes, I did have to Google it) for his sister to begin shaking like a leaf.

Troy’s writer David Farr (The Night Manager) has said that in this series he is keen to explore the other side of Paris and Helen; he regards their story as one of passion and the breaking of conventions, seeing Helen as a bolter rather than as the victim of an
abduction. I guess this is fair enough: there are several versions of this narrative on which to draw. But if only he had not made it all seem so tediously 21st century.

Helen’s marital unhappiness, for instance, is signalled by her fondness for smoking the ancient Greek equivalent of Valium, as if she was a housewife rather than a queen; and when Paris begs her to leave Menelaus, he speaks not of love or even of desire, but of her freedom, her right to fulfilment. The dialogue is so richly silted with self-help banalities, we might as well be watching a Meghan and Harry biopic as a drama inspired by the greatest of all epic poems. There’s also something exceedingly creepy about its retro, soft-porny direction (by Owen Harris); every time Helen takes a shower, you half expect her to whip out a Flake.

In the opening episode of the shot-in-real-time documentary series 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4, 9pm, 19 February) the perpetrator of the crime – a man was being blackmailed for having visited a prostitute – turned out not only to be a copper, but (get this!) one of the officers on the surveillance team watching the spot where £1,000 had been left as bait. Naturally, this made for astonishing viewing; as DC Gareth Suffling was arrested, I thought at first a mistake had been made. But the real fascination of it for me lay in the fact that as a televisual coup, it was born less of serendipity than of the good and wholly transparent relationship forged between the producers and Bedfordshire Police (the series has been running since 2014). What it proved, quite brilliantly, is that hard-won trust and patience – neither of which are very fashionable qualities in journalism these days – can in the end deliver better results than what we might call a hit and run. Bide your time, programme makers, and the big reveal will be yours. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia