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Nikki Haley’s exit gives Trump another opportunity to reshape his team in his image

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Haley’s overarching goal was to avoid tying herself too closely to Trump personally without incurring his ire or that of his base.

US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley will become the latest senior foreign policy official to leave the Donald Trump administration, following former National Security Advisers Mike Flynn and H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, top economic adviser Gary Cohn, and others. More will likely head for the exits in the wake of the midterm elections in November.

Haley’s departure, scheduled for the end of the year, will have two major repercussions on US foreign policy, one short-term and the other more lasting. First, it will give Trump yet another opportunity to reshape his team in his image. Second, it also raises questions about where the GOP will go on foreign policy after Trump.

In nearly two years as UN ambassador, Haley showed her adeptness at both international relations and internal politics. She pushed the line that the president preferred in the UN, making the case for withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, presiding over the U.S. exit from the Human Rights Council and UNESCO, slashing American funding for the UN peacekeeping budget and the relief agency for Palestinian refugees, and defending Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accords. Yet she also managed to take positions that would endear her to the more traditional Republican foreign policy establishment, staking out hawkish stances on issues on Russian aggression and information warfare, as well as Bashar al-Assad’s brutality and chemical weapons use in Syria, and making the case for the sort of principled American leadership that Trump often seemed to disdain.

These stances occasionally put her at odds, at least implicitly, with the president’s views. Yet she generally did a good job of denying disagreements with Trump even where they clearly existed. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as though her overarching goal was to maintain credibility with the never-Trumpers who largely populate the ranks of the Republican foreign policy elite, and to avoid tying herself too closely to the president personally without incurring Trump’s ire or that of his base.

In the near-term, Haley’s departure may allow Trump to further put his own distinct imprint on foreign policy. If year one of Trump’s presidency often seemed to be dominated by stories about how the president was being hemmed in by his “globalist” advisers, year two saw the president assert his own views on issues from trade to Iran to North Korea. And if Trump uses the departure of Haley and perhaps other officials to continue repopulating his team with advisers who share his views on key issues, the administration’s approach to the Middle East peace process, the confrontation with Iran, relationships with allies, and international organizations in general could become even sharper.

As for Haley, her future may tell us something about where the Republican Party is headed. There has long been speculation that she might mount a primary challenge to Trump in 2020. That would be incredibly difficult to pull off: It would require persuading Republican voters who largely support Trump that the president is unfit to continue in office, yet somehow without repudiating her own work or advocacy on behalf of the administration.

Nevertheless, while Haley denied any presidential ambitions on Tuesday, she may eventually calculate that Trump’s presidency will unravel due to a damning Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, disastrous midterm results, or simply its own unceasing chaos — and that the party would then turn to someone who is more stable than Trump but has not alienated his supporters.

One way or another, Haley’s balancing act is not over: She will probably try to position herself as a leading Republican voice on foreign policy, in a way that blends some of the sharply nationalist themes that Trump has used to such good political effect with more of a traditional Republican commitment to U.S. international leadership.

If she does so, we will learn more about what that awkward synthesis would look like on issues from trade and counterterrorism to competition with rivals such as Russia, Iran and China. (I took a crack at describing such a synthesis in my book “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.”) We will also find out whether there is any appetite for a return to more traditional statecraft in a GOP now so thoroughly dominated by the president Haley served.-Bloomberg

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