Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 23, 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War—and Ours

I once wrote a column congratulating a well-known Hollywood liberal—George Clooney—for making “neocon” movies, i.e., movies like “Three Kings,” “The Peacemaker,” and even “Syriana” that support active American intervention in the world in support of our ideals as well as our strategic interests.

Now we can add some more Hollywood liberals to the “who knew they were neocons?” club. To wit, Mike Nichols, Aaron Sorkin, and Tom Hanks.

This is the trio responsible for “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which I just saw and loved. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure yet, the movie tells the story of how a conservative, hard-partying Texas Democratic Congressman named Charlie Wilson got together with a right-wing Texas socialite and a blue-collar CIA officer to vastly increase the amount of American covert aid being delivered in the 1980s to the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan.

Some conservatives have been caviling about “Charlie Wilson’s War” on the grounds that the role of President Reagan, CIA Director Bill Casey, and other Republicans has been slighted to make it appear as if a Democratic congressman defeated the Red Army all by himself. It’s true that the role of senior administration officials isn’t portrayed, and should have been. But it’s also true that Charlie Wilson pushed through a major increase in aid beyond what the administration had requested or what many clueless spooks at the CIA had supported. (There’s a great scene in the film where the smarmy CIA station chief in Islamabad explains to an incredulous Charlie Wilson why it would be a bad idea to increase support to the mujahideen.)

In any case, you’ve got to love a movie in which the Soviets are the bad guys and we’re the good guys, a movie in which the main characters talk unapologetically about how much they love killing Russians. How many other pro-American Cold War pictures has Hollywood made?

Even the ending is a perfect encapsulation of neocon foreign policy thinking. After the Red Army has been driven out, Charlie Wilson is trying to get his colleagues on Capitol Hill to fund schools and other projects to rebuild Afghanistan. They’re not interested. Neither was the administration of George Bush Sr., because they were governed by a realpolitik imperative: Now that the Soviets were out of Afghanistan, who cared what happened next in this backwater country? Of course we know that the inadvertent result was to allow the Taliban to take power—a fate that might have been averted had the United States stayed more actively involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The movie’s closing line sums up my own view of U.S. policy in Afghanistan:

“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. Then we fucked up the endgame.”

Let’s hope that we don’t similarly mess up the endgame today in Afghanistan or Iraq, countries where victory is within our grasp, if we’re willing to make a long-term commitment.

I once wrote a column congratulating a well-known Hollywood liberal—George Clooney—for making “neocon” movies, i.e., movies like “Three Kings,” “The Peacemaker,” and even “Syriana” that support active American intervention in the world in support of our ideals as well as our strategic interests.

Now we can add some more Hollywood liberals to the “who knew they were neocons?” club. To wit, Mike Nichols, Aaron Sorkin, and Tom Hanks.

This is the trio responsible for “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which I just saw and loved. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure yet, the movie tells the story of how a conservative, hard-partying Texas Democratic Congressman named Charlie Wilson got together with a right-wing Texas socialite and a blue-collar CIA officer to vastly increase the amount of American covert aid being delivered in the 1980s to the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan.

Some conservatives have been caviling about “Charlie Wilson’s War” on the grounds that the role of President Reagan, CIA Director Bill Casey, and other Republicans has been slighted to make it appear as if a Democratic congressman defeated the Red Army all by himself. It’s true that the role of senior administration officials isn’t portrayed, and should have been. But it’s also true that Charlie Wilson pushed through a major increase in aid beyond what the administration had requested or what many clueless spooks at the CIA had supported. (There’s a great scene in the film where the smarmy CIA station chief in Islamabad explains to an incredulous Charlie Wilson why it would be a bad idea to increase support to the mujahideen.)

In any case, you’ve got to love a movie in which the Soviets are the bad guys and we’re the good guys, a movie in which the main characters talk unapologetically about how much they love killing Russians. How many other pro-American Cold War pictures has Hollywood made?

Even the ending is a perfect encapsulation of neocon foreign policy thinking. After the Red Army has been driven out, Charlie Wilson is trying to get his colleagues on Capitol Hill to fund schools and other projects to rebuild Afghanistan. They’re not interested. Neither was the administration of George Bush Sr., because they were governed by a realpolitik imperative: Now that the Soviets were out of Afghanistan, who cared what happened next in this backwater country? Of course we know that the inadvertent result was to allow the Taliban to take power—a fate that might have been averted had the United States stayed more actively involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The movie’s closing line sums up my own view of U.S. policy in Afghanistan:

“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. Then we fucked up the endgame.”

Let’s hope that we don’t similarly mess up the endgame today in Afghanistan or Iraq, countries where victory is within our grasp, if we’re willing to make a long-term commitment.

Read Less

Hebron Settles Down

In the current issue of Moment, Glenn Frankel takes a trip through Hebron—normally thought of as the nastiest flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian tension: Several hundred Jewish families of particularly (how to put this delicately?) dedicated ideology, nestled among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, including many of the most violent of their factions. Black hole, right?

Not any more. Frankel reports that Hebron has quieted down to a dramatic degree, due to a combination of unceasing, effective Israeli military operations and the tacit cooperation of the city’s Arab leadership. As a result, the city has become what one newspaper called “the safest place in the territories.” Maybe that’s pushing it. But still, Frankel writes that Hebron is thriving economically as a result of the quiet, and on his visit was “more stable than I’d seen it in decades.” Could this be a model for peace?

In the current issue of Moment, Glenn Frankel takes a trip through Hebron—normally thought of as the nastiest flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian tension: Several hundred Jewish families of particularly (how to put this delicately?) dedicated ideology, nestled among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, including many of the most violent of their factions. Black hole, right?

Not any more. Frankel reports that Hebron has quieted down to a dramatic degree, due to a combination of unceasing, effective Israeli military operations and the tacit cooperation of the city’s Arab leadership. As a result, the city has become what one newspaper called “the safest place in the territories.” Maybe that’s pushing it. But still, Frankel writes that Hebron is thriving economically as a result of the quiet, and on his visit was “more stable than I’d seen it in decades.” Could this be a model for peace?

Read Less