Shadow Government

Rich Williamson, R.I.P.

America and the Republican Party lost one of our great all round foreign policy players this week. Ambassador Richard (Rich) Williamson was one of our smartest, most politically canny and effective foreign policy/national security professionals. Given the fact he would have had a large role in a future Republican administration it is particularly bitter.

Rich was a committed American internationalist. He believed deeply in American exceptionalism. He had a moral sense about the world that came from his faith in God. He was always working for the good but also knew that there was evil in the world and that America had a special moral responsibility to stand up to evil. In other words, he believed there were times when we need to back up our diplomacy and our development actions with military action. He believed in using the full spectrum of American power to shape a world that was more prosperous and more free. He believed in partnering with our allies and making common cause for a globalized world led by America.

He had a deep understanding and appreciation of the capacities, promise and frustrations of the multilateral system. He had served as Assistant Secretary of State for "IO" (International Organizations) at the end of Reagan and beginning of Bush 41, he had held a number of Ambassadorial jobs representing the U.S. in the broader UN system and then had served as President George W. Bush's last special envoy to Sudan where he brought to bear his understanding of the international system, his clear views of right and wrong and his capacity to see through baloney in ways that helped stop atrocities and helped midwife the birth of Africa's 54th country: South Sudan.

Rich had been a Republican activist as well--an asset that many foreign policy types "misunderestimate." He ran for the Senate in 1992, was the chairman of the GOP in Illinois and was a Committeeman for the party when he died. I quickly learned that Rich had a very well honed "BS" detector that he used on several occasions during the Romney campaign. He was direct and sincere but also could tell if someone was not being completely straight. I am sure working in Illinois politics equipped him with those skills.

He combined his two passions in foreign policy and the Republican Party through his leadership of the International Republican Institute-- one of 4 National Endowment for Democracy institutions launched by President Reagan. IRI promotes democracy, good governance and human rights around the world. He was the vice chair of the board when he died.

Very willing to work across the aisle, he most recently partnered with Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the "Responsibility to Protect"--a concept that revolves around when countries can step in and stop atrocities with military force.

I met Rich Williamson through the Romney campaign. We struck up a fast friendship. In the spring of 2012, he called me in my capacity as co-chair of the Romney international assistance working group because he was sending a food security group my way. We also agreed to meet for dinner the following week. At dinner, we talked about politics, the campaign, foreign policy and our families. We compared notes on Team Romney issues. He had a great sense of fun. We collaborated a number of times in the campaign and spoke often afterwards.

It was clear during the Romney campaign that Rich's foreign policy and national security expertise and, critically, his deep domestic U.S. political experience made him a very useful surrogate and adviser. He had been been Reagan's Assistant to the President for Inter-governmental Affairs (the job where you work with Mayors and Governors, etc) -- a job that gave him direct access to President Reagan. At a dinner last September, he shared a wonderful story about a conversation he had with Reagan about a particular conservative activist who was not appointed to something in the Reagan administration. Knowing some of the shortcomings of the particular appointee candidate, Rich pointedly asked Reagan why this person had not been appointed to some role in the administration. Reagan told Rich in a deadpan voice, "Rich, it's because [so and so] is crazy." It was a very funny story and Rich told it well.

Rich had a keen mind. He wrote at least 8 books and over 200 articles. I loved the title of the book he gave me which was a compilation of speeches and articles he gave me "America's Mission in the World." The title says it all. 

He was not a "household name" because he made a decision after Reagan to move back to Chicago for family reasons but worked hard to make important contributions in the DC policy and political communities through his advice, his time and his networks and his willingness to take on challenging public service roles. I imagine he was Global Services on United from all of his flying time.

On the day after the election, Rich called me and left a very thoughtful and kind voicemail about how great it was to work with me. He did not have to do it but I really appreciated it as it was not a happy time for any of us on Team Romney. It was one of those thoughtful things that I will always remember. For those of us that worked with Rich, the best way we can remember him is to take up where he left off and keep building the world he envisioned with America in the lead.

The family has asked that in lieu of flowers that people make donations to the International Republican Institute (


Shadow Government

How Is It a Good Thing for Moderates to Be Losing in Syria?

I have a lot of time for Tony Blinken, President Barack Obama's deputy national security advisor. I consider him a friend, and back in the day I found him to be one of those consistent Bush critics who, away from the campaign microphone, could put partisanship aside and make insightful critiques and suggestions. I was not always persuaded -- his heroic efforts to explain then-Senator Joe Biden's proposal to divide up Iraq come to mind -- but I always came away from our conversations better informed and with a deeper understanding of the limits of our own policy and the best alternatives. 

That is why I am puzzled by this report of his comments at FP's Dec. 11 Transformational Trends shindig. (It is possible that the report loses the nuance of his original comments, but heck, I also have a lot of time for the report's author, Elias Groll, since he could edit my blog posts into nonsense if I picked a fight with him.)

Did Tony really say that the rise of the extremists and the concurrent decline of the moderates among the Syrian rebels was a good thing because it would hasten the end of the conflict by bringing U.S. and Russian positions closer together? He is right that the U.S. and Russian positions have converged, and he may be right that this will hasten the end of one phase of the conflict -- but what that would lead to is hardly a good thing, at least not as I would define a good thing.

A good definition of a good thing would be the lofty goals for Syria that Obama himself articulated back in 2011 when the crisis began: a peaceful, democratic, pluralistic, post-Assad Syria. We are far from that and getting further with the rise of the extremists.

The U.S. and Russian positions have converged because the United States has moved closer to the Russian position. Just today, the United States moved a bit closer still to Russia, suspending even nonlethal aid to the moderate factions. So far as I can see, the Russian position hasn't moved much at all.

Blinken appears to be arguing that Russian fears of the growing extremist threat in Syria will hasten the day when Russia decides to dump President Bashar al-Assad. He is privy to the intelligence and private diplomacy that might support such a conjecture, but from the outside it looks more likely that the way this phase of the conflict ends more quickly is with Assad winning -- outright or with a fig leaf of a political deal forced upon the much weaker moderate rebel factions. Given how far the United States has moved toward Russia, would it not seem more plausible that Russia would double down on Assad as the only game in town?

It is far from clear whether that would do much to ameliorate the unfolding humanitarian tragedy. It is quite clear that this would be a failure, according to the criteria Obama set in 2011.

I am sure that Blinken would have a thoughtful response to this line of critique. Maybe he already gave it. If not, I hope he does.

Photo: Dakota Fine for Foreign Policy