I started the curtain controversy. It wasn’t motivated by partisanship. I actually joined the Foreign Service under President George W. Bush. My concern were the diminishing funds for American diplomacy.
Yes, the Obama administration—where I served on the National Security Council—initially developed plans to install $52,000 curtains in the New York apartment of our ambassador to the United Nations. We could afford nicer drapes at the time; the United States was spending a lot more on diplomacy back then. When the Trump administration took office, hiring at the State Department was frozen and budgets were slashed.
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Curtaingate went viral last week when the New York Times published an article headlined, “Nikki Haley’s View of New York is Priceless. Her Curtains? $52,701.” When the State Department and Ambassador Nikki Haley complained, saying they had no say in the matter, the Times changed the headline and appended this extraordinary editor’s note: “An earlier version of this article and headline created an unfair impression about who was responsible for the purchase in question. While Nikki R. Haley is the current ambassador to the United Nations, the decision on leasing the ambassador’s residence and purchasing the curtains was made during the Obama administration, according to current and former officials.”
That is simply not true. This project was not awarded out until April 2017. Even if it had been funded by the last administration, federal contracts can at any time be stopped or delayed. So Haley was responsible for the purchase.
By time the Trump administration chose to move forward, spending had been cut off for many other essential services. Security enhancements for our embassies in dangerous posts like Baghdad were not being funded. I served in Iraq and know the risks my colleagues face. Medical care for the children of State Department employees with special needs remains blocked to this day. I have a young son and can’t imagine not being able to give him the care he needs. Why were custom curtains and an expensive system to operate them—at a cost equivalent to many Americans’ annual income—considered more urgent than the safety and health of her colleagues?
What kind of public leader pursues costly upgrades to their residence even as their employees lack basic support? The tweet I initially sent was meant to highlight the hypocrisy of those procurement priorities. This wasn’t another case of extravagant spending by a senior Trump official, like Tom Price’s air travel or Scott Pruitt’s secure phone system. Ambassador Haley demonstrated a different kind of entitlement: It was an egregious example of the selective and self-serving application of Trump’s directive to slash spending.
There is a certain irony in their justifying the spending based on plans drawn up by the prior administration. President Trump and Ambassador Haley have aggressively undertaken efforts to dismantle and defund programs from the Obama era. They have abandoned long-standing American commitments and traditions without regard for the cost or consequences. While her custom drapes were being installed, the ambassador oversaw more than $350 million in cuts to peacekeeping, health and development programs at the United Nations—cuts that will cause greater instability around the world. They are also causing a precipitous decline in American influence, as we are witnessing this week in New York.
This isn’t just about curtains, and it isn’t just about money, either. One of the first lessons you learn as a diplomat is that from day one the ambassador is responsible for everything that happens at his or her post. Another point they drill into you at diplomat school is the importance of setting the right tone from the start. Ambassador Haley’s effort to shift blame on others weakens her standing internally and across the United Nations. It sends a message to staff and fellow ambassadors she isn’t going to be accountable for actions that happen on her watch.
Despite Secretary Mike Pompeo’s frequent boasts about restoring swagger, American diplomacy continues to struggle and shrink. The budget he put forward to Congress would cut spending by more than 25 percent. While leaders on Capitol Hill may eventually restore some of those funds, the administration will likely continue its policy of not using all of the money allocated to diplomats. The State Department has also not completely lifted the hiring freeze, leaving significant staffing gaps. As just one example, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security can’t get authorization to fill positions to protect embassies and Americans.
Most of the attention paid to the curtains focused on where the idea started, not who decided to put it out for contract. When President Obama came into office, he canceled the Marine One project, which was already on order. The country was in the midst of a recession and the project was just too expensive. Some Republicans may ask: What would President Reagan have done? Well, he actually did cancel plans for the redecoration of and new furniture for the White House. But as for Haley, she didn’t speak up, nor was she willing to pull up her own blinds as budgets fell.
In reality, the question I was asking was less about whether Nikki Haley needed custom, control-operated curtains. It had more to do with what our diplomats deserve. If we have to prioritize, I would put the safety of those serving our country overseas first. If we have to cut, then politicians, as well as public servants should be prepared to make sacrifices. If we are going to effectively represent America abroad and retain the next generation of diplomatic leaders, then we need to do better.