THE BLOG
09/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Crisis in Georgia Beginning to Turn Into a Big Political Liability for McCain

At first the unfolding conflict between Russia and its neighbor the Republic of Georgia seemed to be just what the McCain candidacy needed: a foreign policy crisis that would allow him to demonstrate a "tough, decisive, experienced" mastery of foreign affairs, and a new rationale for why Americans should choose experience over change in a dangerous world.

But it hasn't taken long for the developments in the Caucuses to become a growing political liability instead.

First, the unfolding conflict provides a fresh example of how McCain's War in Iraq has sapped American power and weakened American security.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last week that Russia's actions in Georgia might fundamentally alter its relationship with the United States. Of course that is exactly what the Russians have in mind, since they are not at all happy with their current role in the world -- or the way they believe the United States and Western Europe have sought to limit their influence, especially with their neighbors and former client states.

Russia has been smarting for years over its inability to prevent the US-lead NATO action that allowed Kosovo to secede from its long-time ally Serbia. It is none too pleased at the agreement to base a US "anti-missile" defense system in Poland.

First and foremost, the Russian action in Georgia has been intended to support separatist pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But it is also intended to demonstrate to other former Soviet Republics that their alliances with the West have very little value if they come into conflict with Russian interests. The Russians know that the Bush Administration's management of U.S. security policy has left the US with very few options to limit resurgent Russian influence.

Of course the crisis in Georgia is just the latest example of how the War in Iraq has massively limited American's ability to respond to this -- or any other -- security crisis.

America already had one major military operation underway in Afghanistan when the Bush administration -- with McCain's full support -- recklessly poured most of our other military assets into the invasion of Iraq. Today most Army and Marine units are either deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, preparing to deploy or recovering from deployment. The fact is that at the present time, we do not have the wherewithal to respond militarily to a crisis even if such a response were necessary or appropriate.

As a result, John McCain's strident statements following Russia's military actions only place into relief the reality that he has continuously supported Bush policies that make us weaker -- in spite of his tough talk.

Secondly, as the situation in Georgia develops it becomes clearer by the day that the Bush-McCain Iraq policy has severely undercut our diplomatic options as well. Apart from generally poisoning the good will of countries around the world, the Bush-McCain invasion of Iraq lowered the bar for the rest of the world when it comes to justifying the invasion of one country by another.

It has made it very difficult for the U.S. to take the moral or political high ground against Russia when just six years ago our country invaded and occupied another nation that had not attacked or immediately threatened us -- and didn't have the weapons of mass destruction that were used to argue that they might "potentially" threaten our security.

Finally, the Georgia conflict has shined a spotlight on McCain's chief foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann.

Scheunamann was a major organizer of the campaign to get the U.S to invade Iraq. He was a board member of the Project for a New American Century that circulated the now-famous manifesto signed by key Neo Cons that first called for the Iraq invasion. He was a founder of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. More recently he has been a paid lobbyist for a number of foreign governments including Macedonia, Taiwan and, most importantly, the Republic of Georgia.

According to records from the Justice Department's foreign agents registration office, Scheunamann's two-person firm has received $830,000 from Georgia since 2004. Though Scheunamann now claims to have taken a leave of absence from lobbying, his latest contract, with Georgia's National Security Council, was signed as recently as April 17th. According to the Los Angeles Times, McCain spoke by phone with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili that day and then issued a statement denouncing Russian moves to "undermine Georgian's sovereignty."

The paper also cites lobbying forms filed by Scheunamann's firm Orion indicating that McCain sponsored or co-sponsored four Senate resolutions on behalf of Georgia and other Orion clients: Latvia, Macedonia, Romania and Taiwan.

The poor judgment McCain showed by appointing a man who was serving as a paid foreign agent to be his chief foreign policy adviser is simply breathtaking. It is even more so because of the history of the current conflict.

There is more than appearance of conflict of interests. Before Georgia's President Saakashvili sent Georgian troops to reassert control in the semi-autonomous region of Ossetia, even the US State Department says it repeatedly warned him against precipitous action that might provoke a Russian response. He did it anyway. In other words, the government of the United States and Georgia had different agendas, different interests, and different policies with respect to the Ossetia conflict.

Where were Scheunamann's loyalties? Did he represent the position of the government of the United States, or of his old client Saakashvili. Do the actions and statements of McCain represent his independent judgment of what is in the best interests of the United States, or the views of a top adviser who made just short of a million dollars representing a foreign power?

What's more, if Scheunamann and McCain did encourage Saakashvili to send troops to Ossetia, it once again calls into question their simple strategic judgment. Saakashvili's action has been a disaster for the Georgian government that has lead to the rout of the small Georgian army, and increased the likelihood that he will ultimately be replaced by someone more acceptable to Russia. This is exactly the kind of poor strategic judgment that McCain and Scheunamann used to lead America into the War in Iraq. Americans don't want more of that kind of judgment.

Odds are, the more we learn about the involvement of McCain and Scheunamann in the Georgia fiasco, the more that McCain's foreign policy judgment will be called into question. Many Republicans have prayed for a foreign policy crisis that could refocus voter attention on foreign affairs and away from the domestic economic disaster. Sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.

Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight. How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.