TheDC Interview: Senior Romney foreign policy adviser Ambassador Richard Williamson

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Ambassador Richard Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to presidential contender Mitt Romney, doesn’t discount the entirety of President Obama’s foreign policy, just most of it.

“The world is better off now that Osama bin Laden is dead. The world’s better off that Gadhafi’s gone,” he explained to The Daily Caller in an extensive interview.

But, he added, “those two deaths do not a foreign policy make.”

Romney’s foreign policy guru has been intricately involved in foreign affairs at senior levels since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who appointed him assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, a role he succeeded Alan Keyes in and immediately preceded John Bolton in.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, he was at various points ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs, ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the president’s special envoy to Sudan.

In 2008, he worked on Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign as a senior foreign policy adviser.

McCain told TheDC that Williamson “absolutely” shares his foreign policy outlook and that he was particularly “impressed with the work he did in probably one of the most insolvable situations and that of course was in Africa.”

Other right-of-center foreign policy luminaries TheDC talked to shared McCain’s assessment of the man.

“He was an extremely effective diplomat, because unlike many career diplomats he understood politics and persuasion — and above all understood vote counting,” former George W. Bush deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams told TheDC, reflecting on his experience working with Williamson at the U.N.

At his core, the sixty-two-year-old Williamson believes in an America actively engaged with the world. He said that the concept of American exceptionalism “combined with a spirit of America, in my view, means that America should embrace its opportunity and responsibility to lead the world and that both the United States and the world are better off if they do that.”

He says the “the freedom agenda, the march of freedom is very important.”

“The United States’ first responsibility is to its national security and then its other vital interests, many of which are economic,” he explained.

“But our foreign policy can and should be animated by our values, which include those transcendent values on which we were founded, that mankind deserves a right to personal freedom and liberty and democracy and opportunity.”

In practical terms, he said it would be progress if the outcome in Afghanistan resulted in a friendly dictatorship that was cooperative in the fight against terror, but he wouldn’t define such an outcome as success.

“Look, if Afghanistan is stable and secure and is not harboring terrorists that have a global agenda and threaten the United States, that’s progress,” he explained.

“Success, I think, means more than that. Success implies that it is both a stable, secure country, but also one that crowds out corruption, that has the rule of law and that allows representative government.”

At the height of the Arab Spring, Williamson wrote an article in The American magazine that he admits was a bit optimistic in retrospect.

“Many concerns are expressed about the Muslim Brotherhood,” he wrote in February 2011 about the fear the Islamist organization would fill the void left by Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who resigned 12 days after the article was published.

“While this possibility cannot be dismissed cavalierly, the Muslim Brotherhood always has been a small minority within Egypt. There are alternatives other than autocrats and theocrats.”

As it turned out, there weren’t so many popular alternatives in the near term. In the two rounds of parliamentary voting that recently took place in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and other even more radical Salafi parties garnered over 60 percent of the vote. But Williamson still expresses cautious optimism about the so-called Arab Spring, at least in the long term.

“I wish that was the only time I had been wrong,” the ambassador said of his initial assessment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity.

“Look, my view is we’re in the opening chapter and it’s a long term book and we don’t know and they’re going to be problems and challenges. But, of course, I welcome the impulse of a people trying to get more control over their destiny, more representative government.”

That is not to say, he added, that he doesn’t recognize that in the “short-term there are many dangers and risks, especially for our friend Israel. “

Asked if, given the results, he would have preferred Mubarak to have remained in power, Williamson retorted, “It’s not my decision.”

“I think if we had engaged in a more constructive way earlier, perhaps you could have avoided what happened and you could have moved in a more constructive path toward representative government,” he explained.

Now that the Muslim Brotherhood is destined to be a significant part of the Egyptian government, Williamson says “you are going to have to deal with them, but as part of the Egyptian government, not independently.”

Asked whether he hopes that the Arab Spring forces Jordanian King Abdullah, an American ally and a relative voice of moderation in the Middle East, from power, Williamson spoke cautiously.

“I think Jordan is in a period of transition,” he said. “The king is trying to deal with that and has made some positive steps. We should encourage those.”

Williamson has said that he believes in the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, which means there is a duty to act to stop “mass atrocity crimes.” Though he concedes that America can’t act everywhere, he says that’s no excuse for acting nowhere.

“I think that [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair was right — just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something,” he said.

Williamson is resolute on Iran, saying that “we have to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon — that’s the bottom line.”

When asked if he thinks the Islamic Republic would use a nuclear weapon if it obtained one, Williamson said “that’s a dangerous game of Russian Roulette.”

“You can’t ignore the rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad,” he said. “You can’t ignore the actions of Iran in Iraq where they have helped kill American personal. You can’t ignore Iran’s arming of Hezbollah, it’s support of Hamas, all these are very dangerous indicators. And so you cannot assume they won’t use it.”

Indeed, “potential Iranian nuclear breakout” is among the concerns he lists as the greatest current threats to American security.

“Potential Iranian nuclear breakout, loose nukes in Pakistan, rising China, hemorrhage of our European allies, that we don’t have a better relationship with Mexico and haven’t been able to stop the cancer of narco-terrorism to ourself that is going to bleed over into the United States,” he tallied off. “I think all of those are very urgent and pressing crises.”

When asked whether he believes elements of the Pakistani government knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding, Williamson said he couldn’t imagine they didn’t.

“Do I believe that just a few hundred yards from the equivalent of West Point Osama bin Laden could live for years and no one know about, no I do not believe that,” he said.

So should the United States designate Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, a terrorist organization?

“I think the first step is we should condition all of our aid to Pakistan,” he said.

“We shouldn’t have given them as much of a blank check. The decision of the U.S. government after 9/11 to basically try to buy cooperation and support from Pakistan for Afghanistan and the War on Terror has proven to be unsuccessful and a waste of money and probably funneled a lot of money to forces that are hostile to the United States interests.”

Asked whether he believes American policy should be changed to legalize political assassinations of dictators if it will prevent greater bloodshed, Williamson hinted in euphemistic language that he was open to the idea.

“I think if someone is a clear and present danger and threat to the United States the U.S. should be willing to engage in appropriate activities to eliminate that risk,” he said.

While Williamson diplomatically says that Romney is his own chief foreign policy adviser, the ambassador’s voice and perspective is undoubtedly being heard by the candidate on a regular basis.

“Rich is a valuable adviser to Gov. Romney,”  Andrea Saul, campaign spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, told TheDC.

“The depth and breadth of his experience allows him to understand the complexity of the world, but speak with clarity. Gov. Romney is honored to have him on the team.”

If nothing else, one thing Romney can expect from Williamson is loyalty.

“When I was declared dead by one and all in 2007 and no longer mentioned in the list of candidates for the nomination of my party, Rich not only stuck with me but he also had a fundraiser that he had to call in every chit that he had out amongst his friends to get them to go and at a very crucial time,” McCain explained to TheDC in an interview.

“I remember Rich telling me, ‘I don’t think your going to win either but I still think you would make the best President of the United States.’”

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