Why Charlie Wilson's War Couldn't Happen Today

A version of this article appears in the December 28 Wall Street Journal

"Charlie Wilson's War," the new film treatment of how a party-hearty Texas Congressman teamed up with other Cold Warriors to humiliate the Soviet Empire in Afghanistan and hasten its end, is a box-office success. After the recent failure of more preachy political films, Hollywood will credit the movie's appeal to its witty dialogue, biting humor and a screwball scene that could have been inspired by the Marx Brothers. But let's hope Washington notes another of the film's lessons: Good things sometimes happened in foreign policy when there was bipartisanship, which now appears to be a bygone concept.

I met Charlie Wilson in his heyday in the 1980s. He was an operator but also a carousing libertine but he was honest about it, promising constituents that if caught up in scandal, "I won't blame booze and I won't suddenly find Jesus."

The Texas Democrat was a liberal on many issues but in foreign policy he called himself "a Scoop Jackson Democrat," after the legendary U.S. Senator from Washington state. And he was fiercely anti-Communist. "I despised the tyranny," he told me earlier this year in an interview.

In 1981, two years after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Mr. Wilson visited refugee camps in Pakistan at the instigation of Joanne Herring, a conservative Houston socialite he'd been dating. There he saw Afghan children whose arms had been blown off by explosives disguised as toys and starving families scrambling to pick up pellets of grain on the ground. "I decided to grab the commie sons o'bitches by the throat," he recalls.

About the same time, newly installed President Ronald Reagan was signing top-secret directives to use covert action and economic warfare to weaken the Soviets. That helped Mr. Wilson team up with a maverick CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos, who hand-picked a team of agency outcasts to funnel weapons to the Afghans. The delicate balancing act that the two orchestrated involved simultaneous support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Mr. Wilson memorably helped seal the deal with Egypt by bringing an exotic belly dancer friend of his from Texas to impress the Egyptian defense minister.

The film offers up a series of foils for Mr. Wilson. The CIA station chief in Pakistan is a bureaucratic weasel who doesn't want to upset the Soviets. When the savvy Ms. Herring demands to know "Why is Congress saying one thing and doing nothing?," Mr. Wilson's instant response is "Well, tradition, mostly." But in the end, Mr. Wilson was able to use his perch on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to expand covert aid to the Afghans from $5 million a year to, with matching funds from Arab nations, $1 billion dollars a year. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, grateful for Mr. Wilson's stalwart support, gave him a long leash. Other House Democrats, intent on blocking Reagan White House support for the Nicaraguan Contras, were happy to let Mr. Wilson have his way in a far-off land to bolster their own anti-Communist credentials.

Gradually, the operation wore down Soviet morale. In September, 1986 the first shipment of shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles reached the mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan. On the missiles' first day of use, three Soviet helicopter gunships were downed. The invaders no longer had air supremacy. "They flew, they died," is how Mr. Wilson puts it. In early 1989, the last Soviet troops pulled out, and the experience convinced many in the Politburo to think twice about putting down rebellions in Eastern Europe. Within months, the Berlin Wall fell without Moscow raising so much as a single AK-47 in anger.

As the film notes, the U.S. failed to follow up on the "end game" in Afghanistan and allowed chaos to develop. Years later, the country fell to the murderous Taliban, who then gave a safe haven to Osama bin Laden. But the film stops well short of blaming the U.S. for creating conditions that led to 9/11. Doing so would be "total BS," Mr. Wilson told me, noting that not a single Afghan ever gave Al Queda a Stinger nor participated in any of the terrorist attacks against the U.S.

Mr. Wilson, who at age 74 is now mending nicely from a heart transplant, is generous with praise for his comrades in skulduggery. "We won because there was no partisanship or damaging leaks," he emphasizes. "Once Ronald Reagan gave us the OK to employ Stingers the war was over. Until my dying day, I'll give him credit."

But he believes that nothing like the Afghan operation could survive today's poisonous Washington atmosphere. Tom Hanks, who brings the dapper, albeit sometimes debauched, Mr. Wilson to life in the film, agrees. He told Reader's Digest that "the constant blaring of the media, from the left and the right, has taken us to a point where there's no legitimate discussion" on serious issues. Indeed, he recently fretted that "Charlie Wilson's War" would be unfairly attacked from the right because he, screenwrier Aaron Sorkin (whose credits include "The West Wing") and director Mike Nichols would be portrayed as "a bunch of Democrats who are taking potshots at the war in Iraq."

He needn't worry. Mr. Hanks and his fellow filmmakers have produced a rousing paean to America's can-do spirit, resisted the temptation to take cheap shots at any current U.S. foreign policy missteps and highlighted how not so long ago one ornery Congressman and a few friends helped change the world.