McCain's First War

He's got Georgia on his mind

Americans have always had a difficult time understanding events in the former Soviet Union. In our nation, where a big chunk of high school graduates cannot locate Central America on a map, understanding events in new map additions like Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Azerbaijan is positively dumbfounding. The latest round of confusion stems from the new war between Russia, which is the name most of us used to use to refer to the Soviet Union, and Georgia, the former Soviet republic that was home to many of the Soviet Union’s most notorious leaders—evildoers such as dictator and butcher Josef Stalin.

Here’s the skinny on this war: It’s got nothing to do with peaches or NASCAR. The Russians aren’t following Robert E. Lee’s route through Dixie to Washington, DC. Our Georgia is fine, more or less. The Russia-Georgia war is essentially an aftershock from the “you go your way, we go ours” Soviet divorce. Hotspots like Chechnya and Georgia are Soviet civil war battlefields. The current conflict is a brushfire war over unsettled cartography.

The war centers on a place called South Ossetia, which, along with Georgia, was annexed by Russia in 1801, around the same time the US admitted Ohio into the union and purchased Louisiana. South Ossetia enjoyed a degree of autonomy under Russian, and subsequently, Soviet (what we called “Russian”) control. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 after being worn down by the four-decade-long Cold War against the West, Georgia, along with a host of places most Americans have difficulty pronouncing, declared its independence.

Here’s where the South Ossetia problem begins. Administratively, South Ossetia was part of Georgia, just like the Adirondack region is part of New York State. So when the Soviet Union broke up, South Ossetia, being on the wrong side of a dotted line, became part of the new post-Soviet nation of Georgia while North Ossetia remained part of Russia.

Two thirds of these new South Ossetian Georgians, however, spoke Ossetic and Russian, not the Georgian language. The new Georgian government, however, broke with the historic traditions of autonomy and declared Georgian to be the official language for all of South Ossetia. The Ossetic-speaking South Ossetians said no to Georgian and declared their independence, exchanging gunfire with Georgian authorities until a truce was called and a South Ossetian autonomous zone was reestablished.

Autonomous areas of South Ossetia went on to develop ties with neighboring Russia, who underwrote their government with economic aid and bestowed Russian citizenship upon 70 percent of the South Ossetian population—citizenship which all of those born before 1992 previously possessed. That was the status quo until earlier this month.

John McCain’s first war

Now let’s shift gears for a moment and visit the John McCain presidential campaign. Specifically, let’s look at one Randy Scheunemann, who joined the McCain team early this year, according to the New York Times, as a chief foreign policy advisor. At the time he joined the campaign, however, he was also employed as a registered foreign agent (that is, a lobbyist) of the Georgian government. Scheunemann also served double duty as a director of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century and was a vocal cheerleader for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Investigative reporter Robert Scheer argues that Scheunemann played a similar but more active role in getting the current Russia-Georgia war started. This war officially commenced when Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his army to invade and seize the disputed and ambiguously aligned former Soviet territory of South Ossetia, where 70 percent of the population holds Russian citizenship.

This invasion, for those familiar with the turf, rekindled memories of the Georgian militia’s March 1991 takeover of sections of South Ossetia. At that time, according to the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs, who was there, the Georgians ransacked the place, trashing national heritage sights and statues.

We are all Georgians

No doubt spurred on by these memories, the Russians, being the Russians, predictably overreacted and launched their own full-scale invasion of the territory. The resulting news photos document the chaos and insanity of the war, with some pictures showing South Ossetians cheering on their Russian “liberators,” much as Europeans did when the US liberated them from Nazi occupation, while other photos show wounded or dead South Ossetians in the rubble of a Russian air strike against their homes. Russia, seemingly following Scheunemann’s script, handed the world all the visuals for rekindling the simple Cold War story of a belligerent Russia bullying its freedom-loving neighbors.

Scheer contends that the Georgian president was urged to attack South Ossetia by his confidant, Randy Scheunemann, rekindling the Cold War just in time to reinvigorate former Cold War hero John McCain’s sputtering presidential campaign. Right on cue, the neocon noise machine kicked in, with wonks like commentator Robert Kagan comparing the Russians with Nazis circa 1938. These Russians are real demons, they say—they make our current crop of spooky guys, like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, look Bush league. McCain has fought these commie bastards. Can we count on Obama to run a real war against the Russian bear?

John McCain was real quick to come out with the one-liner of his campaign: “We are all Georgians.” Of course, by inference, none of us are South Ossetians. So let’s pick a side and jump into the middle of someone else’s pointless civil war yet one more time. You can see why foreign-policy-weary Republicans like Iowa Congressional Representative Jim Leach are already jumping ship and endorsing Barack Obama.

Pining for Armageddon

The insane idea of a nuclear showdown with Russia has already emerged as a theme with the McCain team. Early on in the Republican primary when McCain was wooing his party’s lunatic fringe, he made joint appearances with Pastor John Hagee, who at the time was a key ally and supporter. Back in his San Antonio, Texas megachurch, Hagee pined for a nuclear showdown with Russia as a precursor to Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Last week John McCain did his best to rekindle the Cold War against the Russians, telling the world that, “We’ve seen this movie before, in Prague and Budapest”—referring to two Soviet-era invasions that Georgia, ironically, participated in alongside its Russian partners.

As we march backwards a few years in time, we can see how McCain has been building up toward this moment. In 2006, for instance, he traveled with Scheunemann to Georgia where the pair met with Scheunemann’s employer, President Saakashvili, to share a public anti-Russian bonding moment. A year before that, Scheunemann successfully lobbied McCain to draft a resolution proposing Georgia’s entry into the anti-Russian NATO military alliance.

Papa Bush’s “Mission Accomplished”

To really understand the series of post-Soviet wars, we need to go back further and revisit the Papa Bush administration. Bush the First had his own “Mission Accomplished” moment, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventually the Soviet empire. When the dust cleared and the self-adoration was over, we realized that all we really did was whack a beehive open with a baseball bat, leaving the mighty Soviet military machine, nukes and all, scattered to the wind. The Georgia war, like the Chechnya war, the Bosnia war, the Kosovo war, the Serbo-Croatian wars, and so on, are all the fallout from Bush Senior’s lack of a post “victory” plan for the end of the Cold War.

What we did do after “winning” the Cold War was gloat, gloat some more, and taunt the Russian bear with hot nuclear pokers. While the Russians capitulated and hastily adopted Western-style crony capitalism, we kept poking, feeding and expanding the obsolete NATO military alliance while placing US troops and weapons of mass destruction across former Soviet territory. The ensuing public humiliation of Russia empowered that nation’s reactionary autocrats and undermined its incubating democracy—as historically similar post-war humiliations have done. This is the formula that turned Weimar Germany into Nazi Germany.

Whether he actually encouraged this war, or is just wildly supporting the Georgian side of it, McCain seems to be playing with nuclear dynamite, poking and teasing the one country on earth that has the power to destroy the planet. This Cold War redux does more than give us a glimpse into what a McCain cowboy foreign policy would be like. It illuminates his insanity.


Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are available at, archived at, and distributed globally though syndication.

ęCopyright 2008

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