Foreign and Defense Policy

Rich Williamson, a modest man with much to be proud of

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It’s not certain whether Winston Churchill ever actually described his deputy and then successor, Labor Party leader Clement Attlee, as a modest man “with much to be modest about” – Churchill denied having said it – but it is certain that Churchill underestimated Attlee, who defeated him in the 1945 elections before World War II had ended. Rich Williamson, who died much too young this past Sunday at the age of 64, was a modest man with much to be proud of. And he didn’t mind being underestimated if that helped to get the job done, which for him was usually about promoting democracy and stopping genocide and crimes against humanity.

Although we served together under President Reagan and both Presidents Bush, we worked in different parts of the government, so I knew him mainly by reputation. My first chance for an extended conversation with him came just a few years ago in Munich, where we were both attending the annual Munich Security Conference. I was deeply impressed by his wisdom and his enormous common sense. But what was most impressive was that he made no effort to show off what was obviously a great breadth of knowledge. How uncharacteristic of Washington! But perhaps that’s why Rich always went back to Chicago – where his roots and his home were – whenever he was not engaged in some kind of public service.

Over time, I also came to appreciate how strongly Rich believed that the distinction between values and interests in foreign policy is artificial. He believed that supporting democratic values advances American interests and that we damage our national interests if we make mistakenly think that values don’t matter in international affairs. As he expressed it, “You have to be a realist to take steps day to day, but you have to be an idealist to know where you are going.” In short, he was a true realist, not in the sense that the term is bandied about in academic literature but in the way that Charles Krauthammer importantly defined it as “democratic realism.”

Rich held a number of high-ranking government positions, including as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, as Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and as Presidential Special Envoy to Sudan. Had he lived longer, he probably would have held even more important ones. He served as senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign and would have made an excellent national security adviser for Romney, or for any future Republican president. For that matter, he could have served well for any future Democratic president who would want to follow the great tradition of strong internationalism pursued by such Democratic statesmen as Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Senator Henry Jackson.

Characteristically, Rich was most proud – not of titles that he had held – but of what he had done to help bring peace and promote democracy in poor and conflict-ridden countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. One of his last important government jobs was to try to end the genocide in Darfur. But he was also extremely active outside of government, particularly as Vice Chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute, on whose behalf he traveled to difficult and often dangerous places such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Cambodia, and the Congo.

I still remember a marvelous story he told about how, when he was advising Ronald Reagan in the 1980 campaign, the “Governor” (as he was still called at that time) had educated him on the value of being underestimated. “Young man . . ,” Rich quoted him as saying – after the young adviser had explained that they could get the candidate “smart” on foreign policy issues for the debate – “Young man, when you’re trying to persuade someone, it doesn’t always help to have them think you’re too smart.”

Like the former president whom he so admired, Rich didn’t mind being underestimated if it produced results. He produced many results in his too-short lifetime. He would have produced many more had he lived longer. His death is a great loss, and I know the AEI family joins me in mourning his loss and in offering our prayers to his family at this difficult time.

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