McCain’s Top Foreign Policy Adviser Lobbyed For Georgia: What Did He Tell Tbilisi?

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John McCain’s top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, has for years been an essential conduit for the relationship between the United States and Georgia, the former Soviet republic that has been pounded by the Russian military for the past week.

He was Georgia’s top lobbyist in Washington until earlier this year. He has taken leave from his lobbying firm, Orion Strategies, but he is still listed as president of in the firm, which has received nearly $900,000 from the Embassy of Georgia since 2004.

Scheunemann is tight with the Bush administration and many neoconservatives in Washington’s foreign policy establishment. A former aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), Scheunemann also has easy access to lawmakers like McCain, whose office Scheunemann has lobbied directly in recent years.

For the Georgia government back in Tbilisi, having Scheunemann on the payroll in Washington has been empowering.

“Randy Scheunemann is at a vital nexus…and it made Tbilisi feel as if it was wedged into the back pocket of Dick Cheney,” Steve Clemons, head of the foreign policy program at the New America Foundation in Washington, told TPMmuckraker today.

Scheunemann’s primary mission on behalf of Georgia was getting the Russian border state on track for NATO membership, according to Scheunemann’s filings with the Department of Justice database maintained under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.

NATO membership would include a mutual defense pact that could legally draw the U.S. and the rest of Europe into a conflict between Georgia and its neighbor to the north.

Of course, Russia loathes that idea and even some Americans think it’s unnecessarily risky and provocative. But pushing NATO further eastward and ultimately up to the Russian border has long been a key mission for hawkish Republicans and neoconservatives.

The Bush administration has been a big proponent of Georgia’s NATO bid, despite resistance in Europe. Bush visited Georgia in 2005 and has been especially chummy with Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, the young Georgetown-educated pro-American leader.

It sure made for great rhetoric — casting Georgia as a beacon of spreading democracy and freedom.

But now, since violent clashes have erupted between Georgia and Russia, the Bush administration is taking some blame for not reigning in its small and militarily weak ally.

After all, it was the Georgians who catalyzed this week’s bloodshed when its military mounted an incursion into South Ossetia and confronted the Russian troops there (prompting many to ask: what were they thinking?).

“I would say Georgia has a very good PR team. The U.S. and the Georgian government built a very close relationship and it was too close for the good of either party. . . The U.S. allowed Saakashvili to get too puffed up and think he could fly too close to the sun,” Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University, said in an interview today.

Few on this side of the Atlantic doubt that Russia’s response was brutish and heavy handed. But the Bush Administration is taking a lot of criticism for possibly sending mixed signals to the Georgian government about our level of commitment and support for the tiny nation. (Those critiques are, for example, spelled out here, here and here.)

Georgia was until this week the third-largest contributor of troops to Iraq after the U.S. and Great Britain, where its roughly 2,000 troops were welcomed by the Bush administration.

State Department officials insist they were clear that Georgia should not expect U.S. military support in case of a clash with Russia.

Sure, that was the official line. But we can’t help but wonder, what did Scheunemann tell the Georgians? While they were paying his firm hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to help build a strong relationship with Washington, how did he characterize the level of support Georgia might expect?

Scheunemann’s influence, either spoken or unspoken, emboldened Saakashvili, Clemons said.

“Saakashvili overplayed his hand. He believed he had the world’s best lobbyist helping him not only with Cheney-land. . . but that he also had this wedge into the nerve cell of John McCain, who he may have believed would be the ultimate victor over Barack Obama.”