McCain's Ties to Neocon Hard Lines
By Jason Leopold
Randy Scheunemann, one of John McCain’s top foreign policy advisers, represents a key link in neoconservative strategy that seeks simultaneously to remove hostile regimes in the Middle East and to box in Russia through an expanded NATO that incorporates former Soviet bloc countries.
Scheunemann has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for his past lobbying work on behalf of the government of Georgia, even while he was advising McCain who vowed to bar lobbyists from his campaign.
Scheunemann’s company, Orion Strategies, has received about $750,000 from Georgia, with payments as recently as May.
After the Aug. 7 outbreak of fighting between Georgia and Russia over Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia, McCain – advised by Scheunemann – led a crescendo of tough rhetoric warning of a possible new Cold War and demanding harsh penalties against Moscow.
But Scheunemann's advice on the Russia-Georgia conflict only captures part of his role in shaping McCain ’s neoconservative foreign policy.
Scheunemann merges two key prongs of a neocon global strategy for permanent U.S. military dominance: the simultaneous projection of U.S. power into the Middle East and the elimination of Russia’s dream of reestablishing itself as a major international player.
Operating mostly behind the scenes, Scheunemann has long worked to unify former East Bloc states into an anti-Moscow alliance and to apply regime-change tactics against U.S. adversaries in the Middle East, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the mullahs in neighboring Iran.
In that regard, Scheunemann was one of the neocon operatives who helped promote bogus intelligence about Iraq in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion. He also has said the U.S. government has not been tough enough in dealing with other “rogue” nations, such as Iran.
For instance, Scheunemann believes one area of U.S. foreign policy that needs change is the ban on assassinating leaders of foreign governments.
“It makes no sense to regularly target command and control nodes with precision-guided munitions, while denying highly capable sniper teams the ability to attack individual targets,” Scheunemann told conservative author Bill Gertz in the 2002 book Breakdown.
According to the book, Scheunemann believed the CIA should have been given the authority to assassinate Saddam Hussein during the first Persian Gulf War.
“The messy business of back-alley tradecraft has taken a back seat to the much simpler business of ‘liaison’ with foreign intelligence services,” Scheunemann told Gertz, adding that he would seek to change that approach if and when he returned to the U.S. government.
A director of the neocon Project for the New American Century, Scheunemann worked on McCain’s failed bid for the White House in 2000 and became a top adviser to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2001.
But Scheunemann’s primary service to the Bush administration has come in his private capacity as a contact to Eastern European states as well as his association with Iraqi exiles.
In fall 2002, Scheunemann got a green light from the White House to launch the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an organization whose mission was to promote regime change in the region and to gather European support for a preemptive strike on Iraq.
“The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq was the brainchild of the Bush administration,” the Financial Times reported on Dec. 16, 2002. “It is said that, once the Saddam regime has been overthrown, the CLI will act as a ‘shadow government’ for Baghdad.
“But it will limit itself to policy matters and will not deal with details. It will, eventually, press for a ‘competitive petroleum production-sharing regime’ which could make OPEC irrelevant to Iraq's oil output or supply decisions.”
Scheunemann had been an early supporter of Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, which supplied false intelligence to the CIA about Hussein’s alleged WMD and his supposed ties to Osama bin Laden.
In 1998, while an adviser to Republican Senators Bob Dole and Trent Lott, Scheunemann drafted the Iraq Liberation Act and got the federal government to funnel $98 million to Iraqi exiles associated with Chalabi’s INC.
Later, the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq housed its offices at the same address as Chalabi’s INC.
Scheunemann worked closely, too, with the White House Iraq Group, which was headed by George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card. The so-called WHIG was charged with selling the war to the American public.
In November 2002, the Washington Post reported that Scheunemann’s group would push for regime change in Iraq through “sessions with opinion makers, contacts for journalists and mass marketing when the time is ripe.
On Jan. 28, 2003, the same day that President Bush delivered his State of the Union address that included the now-debunked claim that Iraq had sought yellowcake uranium from Niger, Scheunemann tapped McCain and his close ally, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, as honorary co-chairmen of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
“By joining our efforts, Senators McCain and Lieberman highlight their commitment to ending the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and freeing the Iraqi people," Scheunemann said in a statement issued by his committee.
McCain and Lieberman aggressively promoted the CLI’s goal of Iraqi regime change via a preemptive military strike, which was launched on March 19, 2003, toppling Hussein’s government in three weeks.
In an April 13, 2003, op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Scheunemann wrote how a “democratic Iraq” would help remake the Middle East, an argument that remains a focal point of McCain’s presidential campaign.
But Scheunemann also personifies another part of the neocon agenda. He is a key bridge between an aggressive U.S. policy in the Middle East and the projection of U.S. influence into the former East Bloc nations which were long dominated by the Soviet Union.
In October 2002, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush considered naming Scheunemann as a special envoy to the Iraqi opposition. But Scheunemann was judged to have more value enlisting Eastern European nations into the "Coalition of the Willing.”
So, Scheunemann pulled together the “Vilnius 10” group of East European nations – Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia – in support of Bush’s war policy.
At the time, some foreign policy analysts recognized this collaboration as part of the neoconservative desire to build up NATO to circumvent the United Nations Charter, which bars military attacks without UN sanction.
“With NATO now set to enlarge from 19 members to take on seven East European nations including the three Baltic states, it is said that both the Bush team and the [Committee for the Liberation of Iraq] want the political mechanism of the Atlantic alliance to replace the UN Security Council in giving multilateral legitimacy to any major U.S. action outside North America,” the Financial Times reported on Dec. 16, 2002.
“This is because, unlike the UN Security Council where the French or Russians might block American action, NATO's political decisions do not require consensus. Only NATO's military decisions require consensus.”
For actual military operations, President Bush made clear he would rely on ad hoc alliances, such as the Iraq War’s “Coalition of the Willing.”
The reward for the “willing” Eastern European countries, which the Bush administration called “New Europe,” was future inclusion in NATO with the umbrella of its mutual security guarantee that treats an attack on one as an attack on all.
“Considering the nations - including the Baltic states - signed on the group at the expense of creating a schism in the European Union, the Scheunemann initiative was unanimously regarded as a diplomatic triumph for Washington and a coup d’etat in Brussels,” the Baltic Times reported in August 2003.
Scheunemann’s crossover between his work on the Iraq invasion and his connections to former East Bloc countries proved lucrative, too. He advised them that their collaboration on the Iraq War could get them Iraqi reconstruction contracts as well as U.S. support for their entry into NATO.
He earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from countries, such as Romania which paid him $175,000 for providing advice on Iraqi reconstruction deals.
For another lobbying client, Latvia, Scheunemann made himself even more valuable. He helped form the Latvian Builders Strategic Partnership, a consortium for parlaying Latvia’s support for the Iraq invasion into a cut of the multimillion-dollar reconstruction spending.
Five months after the U.S.-led invasion, Scheunemann met with Peteris Elferts, Latvia’s parliamentary secretary in the Foreign Ministry and ambassador-at-large for Iraqi policy, and Valdis Birkavs, chairman of the Latvian Builders Strategic Partnership, about constructing an information technology system in Baghdad.
Georgia, another of Scheunemann’s lobbying clients, also backed the Iraq invasion, contributed troops, and thus counted on Washington’s support to bring it into NATO. [For more on McCain-Scheunemann-Georgia ties, see Washington Post, Aug. 13, 2008]
Though other NATO members, especially “Old Europe” nations like France, blocked Georgia’s admission, Georgia’s pro-U.S. president Mikheil Saakashvili apparently believed he would have Western backing on Aug. 7 when he launched an offensive against the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Instead, the Russian military intervened to drive back the Georgian army and then took up security positions inside Georgian territory. McCain joined with leading neoconservative voices in denouncing the Russian attack.
McCain’s tough talk about Russia and his insistence that he will only tolerate “victory” in Iraq offer an important insight into what his foreign policy would look like if he wins the presidency.
Surrounded by hardcore neoconservatives, like Scheunemann, there is every reason to believe that a McCain administration would continue using force to impose Washington’s will in the Middle East while engaging in geopolitical brinkmanship against old rivals like Moscow.