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Regarding Charlie Wilson’s War

Posted by Eliot Weinstein on December 28, 2007

I strongly recommend the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, in general US release as of a week ago. Although it wasn’t as moving or artistic as Atonement, which I saw a few days earlier week, I found plenty to think about (and many good laughs) from this based-on-a-true-story movie. It also has the unusual property of being fun and educational (i.e., illustrative of historical facts) without being “wholesome” or a “feel-good movie” (it is definitely neither of those). For those lukewarm on the subject matter, Charlie Wilson’s War includes first-rate acting from Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, an off-the-charts performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, clever directing by Mike Nichols, and an excellent screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (writer of The American President and A Few Good Men, creator of The West Wing).

More discussion and minor spoilers after the jump…

[Minor Spoilers Ahead]

While I am not qualified to evaluate the movie’s source material, I do have some inside information about the topics at the end of the film from the stories of my deceased great-uncle and his still-living wife. My great-uncle was a CIA operative (primarily domestic counterintelligence, and he was in the OSS during WWII). More than a decade before the 9-11 attacks, he said that arming and training the Afghanistan mujahideen to fight the Soviets would come back to haunt the United States unless we actively sought to make peace between the capitalist and militarily strong West and the mostly poor, long-oppressed, and jihad-sympathetic Muslims of the Middle East. Like Gust, he opposed the government’s callous indifference to the consequences of our otherwise nobly-inspired interventions and meddling, and our nation’s inability to think about long-term effects of major policy changes. He also complained about the CIA furloughing and retiring many agents who were Cold War veterans during the massive funding cutbacks after the collapse of the USSR. The American intelligence establishment was thus deprived of the skills of precisely those men and women who understood the Middle East well enough to predict the rapid and violent (and with hindsight relatively inevitable) collapse of the Cold War status quo in that region.

In light of the tragic (and in many ways, it does merit the correct usage of that word) assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, surely some frank and earnest consideration is in order regarding this country’s tightrope policy of providing weapons and money to powerful and non-democratic Middle Eastern strongmen. Here is a summary of what I think:

Arming and training anti-Soviet mujahideen = morally right and good outcome for USA.

Arming and training Afghani mujahideen and then not helping build a stable Afghanistan after the Soviets left = morally wrong and mixed outcome for USA.

Unstable Afghanistan + no effort to create peace and balanced economic development in the Middle East + muhahideen with Cold War weapons and CIA training + draw down of US military and intelligence after collapse of the Soviet Union = morally very wrong and extremely bad outcome for USA.

All of the above + a few fanatical, well-funded radical leaders = Khobar Towers, USS Cole, 9-11, US toppling the Taliban, Madrid and London transit attacks, etc. = “Global War on Terror”, bad outcome for everyone involved.

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