In the fall of 2002, the man who would become the John McCain campaign’s top foreign policy adviser was tasked with a sensitive project at the behest of the White House. It began when President Bush’s then deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley asked neoconservative activist and Lockheed Martin lobbyist Bruce Jackson to set up a committee that could mobilize public opinion for war with Iraq.
“Jackson said he was happy to do this, but he didn’t know what the real motive for the war was about,” says journalist Aram Roston, who first told the story of the meeting in his biography of Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, The Man Who Pushed America to War. “And Hadley didn’t provide him that much clarification.” Nor, Jackson told Hadley, did he know very much about the Middle East.
So Jackson turned to Randy Scheunemann, a longtime lobbying partner and fellow senior officer in a series of interconnected neoconservative advocacy groups: the Project for the New American Century, the US Committee on NATO, and the Project on Transitional Democracies. Scheunemann would set up and run the new group, called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq; unlike Jackson, he knew a lot about the hawks’ case for war and ran in neoconservative circles where Chalabi (whom Scheunemann had met at a Hill event in the ’90s) was a household name.
For their committee, Scheunemann and Jackson recruited a range of politicians and thinkers from both parties: Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), former drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, writer Christopher Hitchens, neoconservative intellectual Robert Kagan, former Pentagon official Richard Perle, and former CIA director Jim Woolsey. McCain was also a member, and honorary cochair, and he would go on to hire Scheunemann as his top foreign policy adviser for both his 2000 presidential campaign and his current bid; Scheunemann’s tasks this fall have included schooling VP candidate Sarah Palin on foreign policy, and even standing in for Sen. Joe Biden during debate preparation.
Gary Schmitt, former senior fellow at the Project for the New American Century and secretary of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, says the group “was about organizing people to make the case for removing Saddam. When the media called and asked, ‘Why is something important?’ it could answer that, or it could provide someone to appear on a radio show.” Scheunemann and Jackson used their connections to another successful group they ran, the US Committee on NATO, to recruit former East bloc leaders to sign a statement likening their struggle against Soviet tyranny to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. “The problem in Iraq is not just Saddam Hussein’s weapons,” Scheunemann, in his capacity as the committee’s president, said in a press release at the time. “It is Saddam Hussein’s regime…We believe it is time to confront the clear and present danger posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime by liberating the Iraqi people.” Committee members also wrote op-eds and made television appearances advancing the case for regime change. (Jackson declined to comment on the committee or Scheunemann, saying he has been far more focused on Eastern Europe.)
Some players in the push to war note that, having been created when the White House was already deep into planning the invasion, the Committee was designed primarily to sway one key audience: legislators. “The deal was already a long time done by then,” says longtime Ahmad Chalabi adviser Francis Brooke. “My own view was that the public was already sold on the war. The issue was, are you selling it to Congress.”
Roston’s account suggests close ties between Scheunemann’s group and Chalabi. Brooke, he reports, threw a party at Chalabi’s Georgetown home to celebrate the committee’s founding in the fall of 2002. “Most of the key neoconservatives were there,” Roston writes. “It wasn’t set up, strictly speaking, as another group linked to the Iraqi National Congress, although it did eventually morph into that.” Brooke says he doesn’t remember any such party, although he acknowledges throwing lots of parties in those heady prewar days—a time when he and Chalabi were working inside the Pentagon helping to draw up plans for war.
“Let’s remember, for a long time, Chalabi had been the face of what everybody hoped Iraq would be like,” says Tom Donnelly, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, previously with the Project for the New American Century. “Secular, western educated, worldly. Everybody knew that he was a bit of a rogue and egomaniac. There was a de facto alliance of convenience. In no sense was the committee a Chalabi front organization…In an environment where people didn’t know very much about the Iraqi opposition, he was the happy face of what everybody imagined the real Iraq was like.”
In the end, says one former GOP Hill foreign policy staffer who has worked with Scheunemann, “Randy is a pretty classic neoconservative. He got associated with Chalabi in particular. That whole crowd [of Republican Congressional hawks]—they have been pretty consistent about that. And they really believed that stuff.”
Brooke says he met Scheunemann in 1996 when he and Chalabi were hitting Capitol Hill to try to drum up increased US government support for the Iraqi opposition. Brooke’s pitch then was that putting pressure on Saddam Hussein was not just the right policy; it was also a vehicle for attacking Bill Clinton, then running for reelection. “I thought it was a good time to educate the Republican Congress…and give them the ammunition they needed to beat the president up.” In Scheunemann and other hardliners on the Hill, Brooke says he found kindred spirits—a clique of Republicans deeply disillusioned with how George H.W. Bush had let both the Cold War and the first Iraq War end without meting out sufficient punishment to America’s adversaries. “These people had a great sense of psychic loss that we had not finished the first Iraq War in the most comprehensive way. They hated George Bush the first.”
Still, Scheunemann, who then worked for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, was initially skeptical. After he and Chalabi made their pitch, Brooke said, “Randy said, ‘This is all fine but on the other hand, the CIA and other parts of the US government tell me that the Iraqi opposition is a feckless bunch of people, that can’t do anything, have no support inside the country, and have probably been up to no good all over the place.'” Brooke says he encouraged Scheunemann to do his own research, and eventually convinced him.
Brooke’s view of Scheunemann is echoed by most of those who know him; going back to his earliest days in Washington, they say, he held an abiding faith in the neoconservative tenet that America must project both its values and its military superiority abroad, in particular to fight totalitarian regimes. After graduating from the University of Minnesota and doing graduate work at Tufts, Scheunemann came to DC in 1986 as a legislative assistant to Minnesota Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.), then the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He later worked as foreign policy and defense adviser to Sen. Bob Dole and Lott when each served as Senate majority leader. In 1996, he advised Dole on national security in his unsuccessful 1996 run for the White House, and in 2000 he did the same for McCain’s failed primary run.
In between those campaigns, Scheunemann left the Hill to become a lobbyist, first going to work in 1998 at the Mercury Group, where his clients have included oil company BP and the National Rifle Association. (In January 1997, Scheunemann was arrested by Capitol Hill police for driving into the Capitol zone with a shotgun in his vehicle, forgotten after a duck-hunting trip.) Later he set up his own lobbying shop, Scheunemann and Associates, and in 2001 he founded Orion Strategies LLC, where he specialized in representing former East bloc countries seeking to become members of NATO, including Latvia, Romania, Georgia, and Macedonia as well as Lockheed Martin. That year, Scheunemann also served as a consultant on Iraq to the office of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.
Scheunemann’s lobbying on behalf of NATO expansion raised eyebrows earlier this year: In August, the Washington Post reported that Scheunemann had prepped McCain for a phone call with the president of Georgia on the same day, April 18, 2008, that Orion Strategies “signed a $200,000 contract to continue providing strategic advice to the Georgian government.” (McCain shares his adviser’s hostile view toward Moscow; even before the invasion of Georgia this summer, he suggested kicking Russia out of the G8.)
Those who have worked with Scheunemann on the Hill and in neoconservative foreign policy circles describe him as extremely smart and focused, if occasionally unpleasant and arrogant. Donnelly says that comes with the territory: “Randy has worked in American politics for a long time. He’s a serious political operative. Randy is pretty hardcore about the nature of power, but also thinks the exercise of power should be done in a moral fashion and with moral purpose in support of American political goals and principles. I cannot imagine Randy being a lobbyist for the Saudis, for instance.
“He is comfortable with the way business is done, the way politics is played,” Donnelly concludes. “He’s a bare-knuckled advocate.”