George Bush's War

In my role as amateur film critic, here are a few thoughts inspired by Charlie Wilson's War. "Based on" a true story, the film depicts one Congressman's successful effort to gain covert funding for supplying sophisticated weaponry to the mujahideen forces in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet occupation. In retrospect, of course, U.S. backing of the mujahideen has been cited as an example of the law of unintended consequences: The very people we armed and trained to fight the Russians in the 1980s became the Taliban and al Qaeda in the 1990s, turning their attention (at least in the case of the latter) to the U.S.

Charlie Wilson's War lets Congressman Wilson himself off the hook for this particular bit of blowback by showing Wilson, after the defeat of the Soviets, vigorously but vainly campaigning for aid to rebuild Afghanistan's civilian infrastructure. Instead, we ignored Afghanistan as it descended into civil war and worse. The lesson, it seems, is that had we only ponied up some money, things would have turned out better.

There is a certain logic to this perspective. Failed states, the theory goes, are breeding grounds for extremists and terrorists. That's undoubtedly right, but not the whole story. Saudi Arabia is not a failed state (in the sense used here); yet it was the breeding ground for most of the 9/11 hijackers. Likewise, some of the most dangerous radicals have lived many years in Europe. Failed states are good places to base terrorist training camps (because without an effective government, there's no one to shut down such camps), but recruits can come from almost anywhere, it appears.

Moreover, if one grants that the way to have averted the Taliban's rise to power was for the U.S. to have provided material support to Afghanistan in the late 80s and early 90s, it seems to follow that the way to prevent Iraq from becoming a failed state is for the U.S. to do the same there now. And because civilian reconstruction can't really proceed without better security, that implies a long-term military commitment. Which may well be right, even though it's a Bush Administration talking point.

I'm inclined towards something more like chaos theory, however. Supporting the mujahideen seemed like a good idea at the time, both on humanitarian grounds and as a way to hasten the demise of the Soviet Union---even though there were real risks in affiliating with people inclined towards theocracy. Whether it will ultimately prove to have been a mistake is not really knowable, because we can't run history through the other way. Likewise with Iraq. Perhaps in the long run the U.S. invasion of Iraq will prove the salvation of mankind, if only through some bizarre twist of fate: E.g., it ends up triggering a wider war in the Middle East, spiking oil prices, thus making cost-effective various petroleum alternatives, leading to the discovery of energy sources that do not contribute to global warming.

Indeed, this sort of alternative is suggested by Charlie Wilson's War itself, in the form of a famous Zen parable that the film re-tells: A farmer boy finds a horse and the villagers cheer his good luck. The Zen master says maybe. The boy falls off the horse and breaks his leg, so the villagers curse his bad luck. The Zen master says maybe. War breaks out and because the boy has a broken leg, he avoids being drafted into the army, so the villagers cheer his good luck. The Zen master says maybe.

So too with Iraq. We don't know how things will ultimately turn out. We do know that the people who sold us this war have been wrong about just about everything so far. (The surge is not an exception, at least not yet. Few knowledgeable people doubted that violence could be suppressed with a larger deployment. The question, still completely unanswered, is what would happen when those extra forces are eventually withdrawn.)

Posted by Mike Dorf