The crisis in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia eerily recalls a tragedy of the Cold War, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. That year, after revolutionaries challenged Soviet control of this satellite state, Russian tanks and troops rolled into Hungary. They crushed the revolt at a cost of some 2,500 Hungarian lives. As in this year’s tragedy in Georgia, the United States did nothing to halt the Soviet onslaught. The administration of President Dwight Eisenhower offered only pious words.
Although the Eisenhower administration denied it at the time, we now know many decades later from recently declassified documents that the United States government was an agent provocateur in the Hungarian revolt. Radio Free Europe, a puppet of the CIA, beamed broadcasts into Hungary which gave the revolutionaries reason to believe that they could expect aid from the United States – aid that the administration was unprepared to provide. The conclusion of Charles Gati in his respected 2006 book on the Hungarian Revolution is worth quoting at length because it bears so directly on today’s events in Georgia:
New information shows how disingenuous the United States was when it kept the Hungarians’ hopes alive – even as it made no preparations to help them either militarily or diplomatically. The initials “NATO” could summarize its approach, No Action, Only Talk. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration’s official declaratory policy of rollback and liberation … amounted to hypocrisy mitigated only by self-delusion; the more evident goal was to satisfy the far-right wing of the Republican Party led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and roll back the Democrats from Capitol Hill.
In the current crisis, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia fell into a Soviet trap by moving troops into the disputed territory of South Ossetia and raining artillery and rocket fire on the South Ossetian capital city of Tskhinvali, with a still undetermined loss of civilian life. As in 1956, the Soviets responded with overwhelming force and additional loss of life. Once again the United States could offer only words, not concrete aid to the Georgians..
It is difficult to believe that like the Hungarians in 1956, the Georgians in 2008 could have taken such rash action without believing that they could expect support from the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denies that the Bush administration denies was the agent provocateur in Georgia. To the contrary, a State Department source said that she explicitly warned President Saakashvili in July to avoid provoking Russia.
If this information is correct, then, by inference, John McCain emerges as the most likely suspect as agent provocateur. First, McCain had a unique and privileged pipeline to President Saakashvili. McCain’s top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, was a partner in a two-man firm that served as a paid lobbyist for the Georgian government. Scheunemann continued receiving compensation from the firm until the McCain campaign imposed new restrictions on lobbyists in mid-May. Scheunemann helped arrange a telephone conversation between McCain and Saakashvili on April 17 of this year, while he was still being paid by Georgia.
Second, while most Senators would hesitate to conduct their own private foreign policy, McCain follows his own muse and defers to no one, including the President of the United States. Third, McCain has benefited politically from the crisis in Georgia. As with the Eisenhower administration’s rhetoric of liberation, McCain’s swift and belligerent response to the Soviet actions in Georgia has bolstered his shaky standing with the right-wing of the Republican Party. McCain has also used the Georgian situation to assert his credentials as the hardened warrior ready to do battle against a resurgent Russia. He has pointedly contrasted his foreign policy experience with that of his Democratic opponent Barack Obama.
Since the crisis erupted, McCain has focused like a laser on Georgia, to great effect. According to a Quinnipiac University National Poll released on August 19 he has gained four points on Obama since their last poll in mid-July and leads his rival by a two to one margin as the candidate best qualified to deal with Russia.
Although McCain does not speak officially for the Bush administration, Saakashvili would likely take very seriously any communication from the presumptive Republican Party nominee for president. As with the CIA in the Hungarian crisis of 1956, McCain may well have given the Georgian president greater assurances of American backing for his actions than the US government could provide.
At minimum, John McCain has a lot of explaining to do. He must explain the precise role that the paid lobbyist played in shaping his policies on Georgia and Russia. He must explain why he retains the lobbyist as his foreign policy advisor even though Scheunemann will ultimately benefit from the revenue raking in by his company. McCain must reveal precisely what he said to Saakashvili in the April 17 conservation and the other private contacts he claims to have had with the Georgian president. On the eve of the presidential election, the American people deserve no less. We should not have to wait decades to find out what really happened in Georgia.
ALLAN J. LICHTMAN is a professor of history at American University in Washington, DC. He is the author of White Protestant Nation.