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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Williamson, Richard

  • Freedom House: Trustee

  • George W. Bush Administration: Presidential Envoy to Sudan

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Richard Williamson is a former ambassador to the United Nations who served as a presidential envoy to Sudan under President George W. Bush and as an assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under President Ronald Reagan. A well-connected Republican, Williamson’s résumé includes running for the U.S. Senate, serving as chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, serving on the board of directors of the International Republican Institute, founding the consulting firm Salisbury Strategies, and being selected as a trustee of the neoconservative-linked Freedom House.[1] He has also worked as a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and as a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Williamson served as a foreign policy adviser to the 2012 Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan presidential campaign, gaining a reputation as an aggressive surrogate for Romney on the campaign trail, particularly with respect to the candidate’s views on Middle East policy.[2] In September 2012, for example, shortly after violence erupted across the Greater Middle East in reaction to the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, Williamson controversially argued that attacks on U.S. embassies were effectively the fault of the Obama administration, claiming that under Romney—who in a 2012 campaign stop in Israel outraged many in the Middle East by claiming that Palestinians were underdeveloped because of their culture—that the United States would be somehow closer to civil society in the Middle East. He told CNN: "A Romney administration would be there, would be more active trying to work with civil society, with reformer movements, so we would be partners in this evolution, not running behind."[3]

Williamson went so far as to suggest to a Washington Post reporter that the attacks wouldn’t have happened under a Romney administration, calling them a symptom of declining “respect” for the United States under the Obama administration. Benjy Sarlin, a reporter for Talking Points Memo, pointed out that numerous attacks on U.S. embassies had occurred while Williamson was serving in the George W. Bush administration.[4]

On Iran, Williamson—along with fellow Romney surrogate Dan Senor—was among the candidate’s more outspoken advisers, going so far as to suggest that as president, Romney would be willing to bomb the country if there were indications that Tehran had made the decision to develop nuclear weapons (as opposed to acquiring actual weapons). During a July 2012 interview with CNN, Williamson said that “Tehran should know that Governor Romney is committed to work everything possible diplomatically to avoid having to use force. But if it gets to nuclear breakout, military options are on the table and have to be seriously considered.”[5]

Although Williamson was not clear about what he meant by “breakout,” many observers interpret that to mean the decision to try to develop nuclear weapons. Wrote Ben Armbruster: “‘Breakout’ could mean the decision to acquire and action on acquiring all the necessary components for a bomb (such as enriching low-enriched uranium to a higher purity), while ‘capability,’ what Romney’s adviser previously referred to last weekend, could be described as actually obtaining all the necessary components after the decision to breakout.” Such a position, Armbruster noted, would stand in stark contrast to that of the Obama administration, which has said that its threshold would be the actual acquisition of a nuclear weapon.[6]

At other times, Williamson was hard-pressed to meaningfully distinguish the former Massachusetts governor’s position on Iran from President Obama’s. In an interview with Barbara Slavin published in Al-Monitor, Williamson said that “President Romney will seek a negotiated settlement … but the fact is that Bismark, the greatest diplomat of modern times, was correct: Diplomacy without a credible threat of military force is like music without instruments. It doesn’t work.”[7] However, as Ali Gharib pointed out at Think Progress, “Obama’s vowed again and again to keep all options ‘on the table.’” He added that, save for the Romney campaign’s opposition to any Iranian nuclear enrichment whatsoever (even at levels appropriate for civilian use), Williamson has “made abundantly clear that there are very few differences between Romney’s Iran policy and President Obama’s.”[8]

In the same interview, Williamson rehashed familiar Romney campaign claims that Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus on many occasions with respect to how he’s approached the settlements [and] prospective borders for a Palestinian-Israeli agreement,” even though the president had only articulated long-standing U.S. policy.[9] In a similar June 2012 interview with the Israeli Ha’aretz, Williamson also expressed impatience with the diplomatic process over Syria, recycling a campaign talking point that the Obama administration was taking a “mother, may I” approach to the conflict by attempting to coordinate Syria policy with UN Security Council members Russia and China.[10]

In April 2012, he echoed an aging right-wing trope in a Foreign Policy op-ed likening President Barack Obama to former President Jimmy Carter. “[E]vents abroad may be bringing us to a juncture at which the inexperience and incompetence of a presidency crystallizes in the public mind,” Williamson wrote. “In short, we are approaching a Jimmy Carter moment.” Williamson attempted to ridicule the administration for concluding a tentative agreement with North Korea exchanging food aid for a ban on missile tests, only to have North Korea test a new missile a few weeks later. Williamson also accused the administration of “standing idly by” during Syria’s uprising and civil war, and for giving Iran’s “ayatollahs time to enrich uranium, harden bunkers, and come closer to a nuclear weapons capability than ever before” by pursuing a dual track of sanctions and engagement.[11]

Williamson picked up on many of the same talking points during his July 2012 CNN interview. When asked by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien whether Romney’s heavily criticized July 2012 campaign trip to England, Israel, and Poland was little more than “naked electoral politics courting ethnic, Catholic, and Jewish voters” (as Michael O’Hanlon stated in an earlier interview), Williamson responded: “I think the strategy of this trip … was to lay out the governor's vision of foreign policy which begins first with a recognition and embracing of American exceptionalism. Two, that we have to be aggressive and show American leadership. We should lead from the front not behind. That's better for the United States and the world. Three, that we work closely with our allies. And, finally, that peace [comes] through strength. Governor Romney is of the tradition of President Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, where President Obama is in a different view and closer to Jimmy Carter. So, that contrast is important for the American people to understand even as their first priority is to get the economy moving, something that President Obama has failed at.”[12]

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[1] Chicago Council on World Affairs, Richard Williamson bio,http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/files/About_Us/Fellows_Experts/Richard_S._Williamson.aspx.

[2] Chicago Council on World Affairs, Richard Williamson bio,http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/files/About_Us/Fellows_Experts/Richard_S._Williamson.aspx. See also MittRomney.com, “Mitt Romney Announces Foreign Policy And National Security Advisory Team,” October 6, 2011,http://www.mittromney.com/blogs/mitts-view/2011/10/mitt-romney-announces-foreign-policy-and-national-security-advisory-team.

[3] CNN, “Romney adviser blames Obama for Libya, Egypt attacks,” September 14, 2012,http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/14/romney-adviser-blames-obama-for-libya-egypt-attacks/.

[4]  Benjy Sarlin, “Romney Adviser: Libya Attack Never Would Have Happened Under Romney,” Talking Points Memo, September 13, 2012, http://2012.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/09/romney-adviser-under-president-romney-libya-attack-never-would-have-happened.php

[5] CNN Transcript, July 30, 2012, http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1207/30/sp.02.html.

[6] Ben Armbruster, “Romney Aide: If Iran ‘Gets To Nuclear Breakout,’ Attack Should Be ‘Seriously Considered’, ThinkProgress, July 31, 2012,http://thinkprogress.org/security/2012/07/31/614651/williamson-attack-iran-seriously-considered/.

[7] Barbara Slavin, “Top Romney Adviser Says US Should Arm Syrian Rebels,” Al-Monitor, June 13, 2012, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/richard-williamson-mitt-romneys.html.

[8] Ali Gharib, “Romney Adviser Lays Out Iran Policy Nearly Identical To Obama’s: ‘Romney Will Seek A Negotiated Settlement,’” Think Progress, June 14, 2012, http://thinkprogress.org/security/2012/06/14/499762/williamson-iran-obama-negotiated-settlement/.

[9] Barbara Slavin, “Top Romney Adviser Says US Should Arm Syrian Rebels,” Al-Monitor, June 13, 2012, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/richard-williamson-mitt-romneys.html.

[10] Chemi Shalev, “Romney aide to Haaretz: After he’s elected, Iran will see there’s a new sheriff in town,” Haaretz, June 8, 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/romney-aide-to-haaretz-after-he-s-elected-iran-will-see-there-s-a-new-sheriff-in-town.premium-1.435280.

[11] Richard Williamson, “Obama's Jimmy Carter Moment,” Foreign Policy, April 26, 2012,http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/25/obama_s_jimmy_carter_moment.

[12] CNN Transcript, July 30, 2012, http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1207/30/sp.02.html

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Williamson, Richard Résumé


  • Mitt Romney 2012 Campaign Adviser

  • Chicago Council on Global Affairs: Senior fellow, 2010 –

  • Brookings Institution: Nonresident senior fellow

  • Freedom House: Trustee

  • International Republican Institute: Board of directors


  • Presidential Envoy to Sudan, 2007-2009

  • State Department: Assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, 1987-1989

  • Assistant to Ronald Reagan, 1981-1983


  • Salisbury Strategies, LLP: Founder

  • Winston & Strawn LLP: Former partner


  • University of Virginia: JD

  • Princeton University: BA


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