Over the weekend, The New York Times noted that some of John McCain’s foreign policy advisers from the “realist” camp are uneasy with the amount of influence enjoyed by neoconservatives like Randy Scheunemann, who’s been serving as McCain’s chief foreign policy aide and spokesman.
But it isn’t only his internal rivals who have reason to worry about Scheunemann. Not only does he have McCain’s ear, he also has a track record of being consistently wrong on the major foreign policy question of the day — Iraq. Of all the hawkish Washington foreign-policy types pushing both before and after 9/11 for war with Iraq — a war that an overwhelming majority of Americans now considers a mistake — Scheunemann, though not a marquee name, was among the most energetic and influential. And in the invasion’s aftermath, he consistently opposed steps that might have helped stabilize the country.
And yet, the political press has largely given McCain a pass on the fact that his top foreign policy adviser was at the center of perhaps the biggest strategic folly in our history.
Here, to refresh reporters’ memories, is the rundown on Scheunemann’s Iraq record:
- As a top aide to then-Senate GOP leader Trent Lott, Scheunemann helped draft — and acted as a driving force behind — the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act (ILA), which essentially made “regime change” the official Iraq policy of the US. The Act was cited as a key basis of support in the fateful 2002 Congressional resolution authorizing military force, and directly paved the way for President Bush’s invasion.
- Scheunemann was a board member of Bill Kristol’s Project for a New American Century, which played a major role in agitating for the war. Scheunemann signed Kristol’s influential letter to President Bush, sent nine days after 9/11, which asserted that failing to respond to the Al Qaeda attack by going after Saddam would “constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.” Scheunemann also served as a “consultant” to Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon while it was planning the war. And in late 2002, Scheunemann, with administration approval, founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI), an advocacy group with the explicit goal of whipping up pro-war sentiment across the country.
- Scheunemann was a crucial Washington backer of Ahmad Chalabi, the now-disgraced Iraqi exile who helped feed the CIA false intelligence on Saddam’s WMD program and has since been accused of giving US state secrets to Iran. In the years leading up to the invasion, the two were so tight that the spokesman for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress shared a Washington address with both CLI and Scheunemann’s private lobbying firm and Scheunemann was mentioned in press reports as a candidate for the job of formal envoy to the Iraqi opposition. During this period, Scheunemann, who acted as a crucial link between Chalabi and John McCain, was a go-to guy for reporters seeking pro-Chalabi quotes. He told The New York Times that Chalabi possessed “tremendous attributes that would be of immeasurable benefit to an Iraq in transition to democracy” and separately called him “an Iraqi patriot.”
- Like other war supporters, Scheunemann threw caution to the wind in declaring, wrongly, that Saddam had WMD. “There is no doubt Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction,” he assured Americans a month before the invasion.
- Scheunemann also played a key role in lining up support for the invasion from the “Vilnius Ten,” a group of former Soviet bloc countries seeking to gain entry to NATO, some of whom Scheunemann has worked as a paid lobbyist on behalf of. With his partner Bruce Jackson, a Lockheed Martin executive, Scheunemann reportedly gave assurances to the Ten that backing the invasion would help their chances for NATO membership. Ultimately, seven of the ten countries gained entry to NATO, and two of those, Romania and Latvia, employed Scheunemann as a paid lobbyist to promote their applications.
- In the invasion’s aftermath, Scheunemann’s judgment proved no more effective. He argued vociferously against giving the UN a significant role in stabilizing Iraq. And he also opposed leaving any members of Saddam’s Baath party in government positions, declaring: “It is very difficult for me to conceive of democratic institutions being established in Iraq with the Baathist power structure mostly intact.” Both of these positions, of course, proved to be disastrous policy blunders, which badly damaged our ability to stabilize Iraq in the crucial early months.
It’s kind of astonishing that McCain continues to be taken seriously on Iraq when his closest adviser has a track record on the issue as atrocious as Scheunemann’s. At the very least, when reporters hang up from their frequent conference calls, arranged by the McCain campaign, in which Scheunemann attacks Barack Obama’s judgment on Iraq, they might want to keep Scheunemann’s own history on the subject in mind.
Late Update: We wrote above, based on a 2004 report in The Los Angeles Times, that the spokesman for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress shared a Washington address with both CLI and Scheunemann’s private lobbying firm. But Entifadh Qanbar, who worked for the INC at the time, told TPM that Scheunemann took over the office space from the INC when the INC moved into new digs.