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Barack Obama As Charlie Wilson?

Then-Rep. Charles Wilson, on the white horse, on a visit to Afghanistan in 1987.
Then-Rep. Charles Wilson, on the white horse, on a visit to Afghanistan in 1987. (Associated Press)
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By Stephen G. Rademaker
Saturday, September 5, 2009

Twice in 25 years, Afghanistan has been cast in American politics as the "good" war, worthy of American support, and contrasted with a "bad" war that allegedly was not. The first time, this worked out reasonably well for America and its Afghan allies. It is unclear whether that will be true this time around.

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Twenty-five years ago, Afghanistan was the setting for "Charlie Wilson's War," chronicled in George Crile's book and the movie of the same name. At the heart of that story is a seeming paradox: A Democratic congressman from Texas leads Speaker Tip O'Neill's Congress to stake out a position well to the right of Ronald Reagan on whether America should try to defeat the Red Army in Afghanistan. Urged on by Wilson for the better part of a decade, Congress brushes aside the qualms of the Reagan administration and regularly increases U.S. support for the Afghan mujaheddin, leading ultimately to the Red Army's defeat, the collapse of Soviet communism and victory in the Cold War.

This is the same Ronald Reagan whose policy of arming anti-communist rebels came to be known as the "Reagan doctrine," who famously labeled the Soviet Union the "evil empire"? The same Tip O'Neill who ferociously opposed Reagan's military buildup and his support for the anti-communist contras in Nicaragua? How could this be?

The answer is tucked away in Crile's book. He quotes Wilson as saying that to persuade members of Congress to vote with him on Afghanistan, Wilson told "the liberals it would prove that they were against communism even if they didn't support the contras." Wilson, of course, was passionately committed to the mujaheddin and cannot be faulted for using the foil of a "bad" war to advance the cause he believed in.

To O'Neill and his lieutenants in the congressional leadership, however, the question of Afghanistan was never more than an afterthought to their desire to defeat Reagan's policies in Central America. Crile quotes a defensive Tony Coelho, then House Democratic whip, explaining that the "only reason the political institutional atmosphere would permit something like this to develop was because of the cover of Nicaragua. . . . No one paid any attention to it, and they would have had it not been for Nicaragua."

There was nothing paradoxical, therefore, about Charlie Wilson's success. He didn't succeed despite the congressional leadership's hostility toward the contras but, rather, because of it. And even after the contras receded as a political issue in Congress, Wilson persisted and saw his cause to victory.

For the past two years, Afghanistan has been at the center of a remarkably similar story. As a candidate for president, Barack Obama correctly sensed that to win the Democratic nomination he needed to portray himself as more opposed to the Iraq war than any of his opponents, but that to win the general election he needed to be able to reassure the American people of his determination to defeat terrorism.

Afghanistan offered a convenient solution: Obama held it up as the "good" war that he was determined to win, unlike the "bad" war in Iraq that he would end. He promised a military surge in Afghanistan, and he dared John McCain and the outgoing administration to get to his right on the issue.

On a political level this strategy worked brilliantly, enabling Obama to deflect any suspicion that he was a McGovernite ready to surrender to Islamic extremism. But now that he is president, events are testing his professed commitment to victory in Afghanistan.

By all accounts the war is going badly. August was the deadliest month ever for Americans in Afghanistan. Obama has already ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and our military commanders are calling for even more. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found that a majority of Americans no longer support the war, and the president's former supporters in Code Pink and similar antiwar organizations have declared that they will turn their sights on him if he doesn't wind down U.S. involvement.

Will President Obama prove to be the Charlie Wilson of this story, confident of what he has been saying all along about Afghanistan and committed to victory over the Taliban? Or will he turn out to be the Tip O'Neill, willing to exploit Afghanistan to help end the "bad" war he really cares about, but ultimately indifferent to what happens in Afghanistan? As the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq proceeds and the challenges in Afghanistan mount, it won't be long till we learn the answer.

The writer, senior counsel of BGR Government Affairs LLC, was an assistant secretary of state from 2002 to 2006, with responsibility for arms control, nonproliferation and international security.




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