John McCain’s top foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, is a leading expert on U.S.-allied Georgia — and was a paid lobbyist for the former Soviet republic until March, in the run-up to what has become a major battle between Georgia and Russia.
Democratic rival Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was quick to try to paint Mr. Scheunemann’s dual roles as a conflict of interest after Sen. McCain swiftly took Georgia’s side in the dispute, and cited it as evidence that Sen. McCain is “ensconced in a lobbyist culture,” as Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan told reporters over the weekend.
But given the rapid escalation of the fighting, and the fact that Georgia is being viewed as a victim of its neighbor’s aggression, Mr. Scheunemann’s ties to the small nation and its pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili may look less like a weakness and more like a strength in the first foreign-policy crisis of the general election campaign.
“In a major international crisis, what is their response?” Mr. Scheunemann said of the Obama campaign in an interview Sunday. “To take a cheap shot at me, as if helping a struggling democracy is somehow wrong.” Mr. Scheunemann took a formal leave of absence from his two-person lobbying firm earlier this year amid controversy over Sen. McCain’s ties to lobbyists.
Mr. Scheunemann’s firm, Orion Strategies, continues to represent Georgia in Washington, and signed a new $200,000 contract with the country in April. Mr. Scheunemann remains an owner of the firm, though he is no longer registered to lobby for it. Mr. Scheunemann said he has made more than a dozen trips to Georgia since he began lobbying for the country in 2004.
The crisis puts a spotlight on Mr. Scheunemann, 48 years old, who has long been a leading neoconservative voice in the American foreign-policy debate. He played a prominent role advocating for toppling Saddam Hussein, serving in 2002 as executive director of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. At a key moment before the war, he helped to line up allies in “New Europe” — notably former Soviet bloc states like Latvia — to write a letter in support of the invasion. That came as “Old Europe” American allies like France and Germany resisted.
Mr. Schueneman has made a career in lobbying for countries, including Georgia, that aspire to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russia’s objections to expansion of the Western military alliance are a factor in the current assault in the Caucasus.
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