top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why Nikki Haley could be the most dangerous president

Why Joe Biden’s problem is bigger than just fatigue with anti-Trumpism. (Alain Pilon/The New York Times)

By Ross Douthat

In the alternate timeline where Ron DeSantis proved to be a capable campaigner and looked poised to defeat Donald Trump in New Hampshire and beyond, we would be facing a multitude of left-leaning essays on a single theme: “Why DeSantis is actually more dangerous than Trump.”

In this world, the only threat to Trump in New Hampshire is Nikki Haley, and her candidacy doesn’t look built to last much beyond that primary. But in the spirit of slipping in your controversial opinions while you can, and because she might yet be Trump’s running mate, here is my own fear: A Haley presidency could be more dangerous than a second Trump term.

This is not because I think that Haley is an authoritarian threat to American democracy. She is obviously not, and her nomination and election would have the salutary effect of re-normalizing Republican politics on important questions like, “Should you contest a lost election by pushing for a constitutional crisis and whipping up an angry mob?”

But when the history of 21st-century American decline is written, the crucial chapter will focus not on Trump but on one of his predecessors, George W. Bush: a better man than Trump, a capable politician with a number of sound policies to his credit, but also the architect of a hubristic foreign policy whose disastrous effects continue to ripple through the country and the world.

The Iraq War and the slower, longer failure in Afghanistan didn’t just begin the unraveling of the Pax Americana. They also discredited the American establishment at home, shattering the center-right and undermining the center-left, dissolving confidence in politicians, bureaucracies and even the military itself, while the war’s social effects lingered in the opioid epidemic and the mental health crisis.

Haley is not exactly a George W. Bush Republican. Rather, she shares the mood that emerged among establishment Republicans after Bushism collapsed, which blamed the failures of his presidency on overspending rather than Iraq, and envisioned a Republican future defined by fiscal austerity, moderation on social issues and full-spectrum hawkishness in foreign policy.

This was the worldview that Trump successfully ran against in 2016, when it was extremely ill-suited for the challenges the country faced. Today the landscape is somewhat different: Haley’s eagerness to talk about entitlement reform, for instance, is still probably a political loser, but the inflation-shadowed world of 2024 could use a grand bargain on deficits in a way the world of eight years ago did not.

However, on foreign policy a sweepingly hawkish vision is even more out of touch with the present global landscape, where the United States faces a destabilizing world with an overstretched military that can’t meet its recruitment goals and a set of rivals who see this moment as their window of opportunity. (Or of necessity, in the case of a China that’s powerful today but staring at rapid demographic decline just over the horizon.)

Promises of resolve and moral clarity will not save us: There is no way that we can confront every threat with equal confidence and military power, and there are necessary trade-offs between the costs of the Ukraine war, our support for Israel and containment of Iran, our efforts to protect Taiwan and cool North Korea’s growing bellicosity, along with the various secondary obligations and surprise crises that might hit.

In this environment, the ideal president is a Nixon or an Eisenhower — a realist and a careful balancer, not a dove or an isolationist but also not a bellicose idealist. And our gravest danger right now is probably not the one invoked by critics of Haley’s who imagine an America abandoning its allies, handing the world to dictators, beating a cowardly retreat.

Rather, the greater peril is an American establishment and an American president who overestimate our powers, commit ourselves too broadly and too thinly, and end up facing a series of outright military debacles and defeats. (Indeed, if I were to script a true domestic crisis for U.S. democracy, I would start with America losing a war with China and seeing its global power crack and break.)

Now it may be unfair to Haley to cast her in this kind of hubristic role. Hawkish politicians can practice realpolitik and play peacemaker — Ronald Reagan did both — and would-be realists can miscalculate their way into disasters. It’s possible to imagine scenarios where simply having greater energy in the executive helps America avoid problems that we would stagger into under a decrepit Joe Biden or a flailing and amoral Trump.

But out of all the candidates, Haley’s vision still reminds me the most of Bush’s worldview, which at a time of seemingly unconstrained power set us on the path to our era of crisis and constraint. Having seen that vision undermine a strong America, I do not trust it to rescue a weakened America. And if what failed us once should fail again, the price could be more terrible, and the collapse much more complete.

18 views0 comments


bottom of page