Perhaps the advice Scheunemann offered McCain wasn’t problematic, even though he was doing so as a paid agent of a foreign government whose interests, though they run with those of the United States, are not identical. But what about the advice Scheunemann offered Saakashvili? Something fooled Saakashvili into thinking either that the Russians would be restrained or that the U.S. would intervene. Was Scheunemann hyping his own influence, as lobbyists often do to keep the checks rolling in? And did that lead Saakashvili to discount the warnings he was getting from the State Department?
I don’t want to defend too strenuously the whole business of foreign agents, but it’s part of Washington’s lobbyist culture. But, Ken Silverstein’s genius notwithstanding, there’s a difference between lobbying for Australia and for Turkmenistan. No, Georgia’s interests aren’t identical with America’s, but neither are Spain’s. As I said before, active lobbyists shouldn’t be paid campaign advisors, whomever they lobby for.
As for the advice Scheunemann gave Saakashvili about taking on Russia—I don’t know what he said. Saakashvili says they haven’t spoken in a long time; while his response to the host’s question is a non-answer answer, Scheunemann was not a paid advisor—he was a flack. He might’ve provided feedback on what’s selling in DC, but he was not a policy advisor. Saakashvili has plenty of those, including Democratic Party insiders (Saakashvili is resolutely bipartisan, in the U.S.). Scheunemann’s interests and ambitions certainly extend beyond being a humble PR man, but few here think that he was providing Saakashvili with critical intel or advice.
The larger questions, then, of how did the decisionmaking that led to war with Russia proceed, and what was the U.S. role? Not surprisingly, there is no clear, reliable account of what happened. The Georgian government has issued hundreds of documents on the events preceding its attack on South Ossetian security forces on the evening of August 7, and has given a few, sparse accounts of the crisis decisionmaking. Opposition figures are calling for an investigation into the events, as is Hillary Clinton.* Several enterprising bloggers and independent investigators, with no inside access, have produced their own timelines. Unfortunately, Georgia has no Bob Woodward or Graham Allison or Paul O’Neill, and I suspect we’ll never know just who said what to whom.
State Department, DOD, and White House officials all insist that they discouraged Saakashvili from unduly provoking the Russians, and certainly from any combined-arms engagement. There’s no reason to believe otherwise. But there’s also no reason to believe, in the absence of evidence, that any outside advisor—formal or otherwise—misled Saakashvili about Russian or American intentions. Tensions had been very high in South Ossetia for weeks, Saakashvili is impetuous, and Putin is ruthless—it’s not hard to see how the conflict could spiral, without appealing to shadowy, behind-the-scenes players. Scheunemann’s history with the INC certainly lends some weight to such suspicions, but I’m with William of Occam on this one.
For what it’s worth, people I know in the Georgian government—analysts and planners, not political types—are divided on whether Saakashvili’s hand was forced or whether he had other options, but none think that he was duped into planning for an easy victory.