A few weeks ago, our department had a showing and discussion of the Tom Hanks film Charlie Wilson’s War. Here is a write-up on the event from one of the freshmen in my Intro to Comparative Politics class.
Charlie Wilson’s War and the discussion following it dealt with the nature and repercussions of US involvement in the Middle East during the early 1980s. Although the film focuses on international relations in the depiction of the interactions between the US and the Middle East, it also gives two very different views of domestic politics. Afghanistan is shown in a state of upheaval, demonstrating the difficulty which is often inherent to the transfer of power. The US government, on the other hand, is shown as very strong, especially in its ability to manipulate and deceive the American people.
The involvement of the US in Afghanistan represents the complicated nature of foreign affairs during the Cold War, especially when there was a potential for physical conflict. Although the US wants to help Afghani citizens, particularly since they are struggling against the Soviets, it cannot help them in too obvious or material a manner. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is an example of “leapfrogging” containment, attempting to extend their control beyond Eastern Europe. As the other major world superpower, it was in the best interest of the US to see that Soviet expansion failed. Becoming directly and militarily involved, however, would escalate the Cold War to the status of a real war, which, considering the nuclear capabilities of each superpower, would threaten the safety of Earth. Thus, the US was led to smaller and relatively secret operations in Afghanistan, and indirect means of supporting the mujahideen, such as selling weapons.
Charlie Wilson’s War demonstrates the effects of political turmoil on the population. The instability and violence created in the power struggle in Afghanistan dramatically affected the population, as Charlie sees when he visits a refugee camp. Violence as a result of political instability and internal conflict creates an atmosphere of despair and helplessness among the population, which perpetuates the chaos initiated by a transfer of power. The group of Afghani citizens with the most influence was the religiously-affiliated rebel organization the mujahideen, who used violence as a means of gaining power. This set the precedent for later theocratic and authoritarian trends in the area, which contributed to the current state of political uncertainty.
Problems and practices in United States politics were also exposed. Decisions which had the potential to drastically influence foreign policy and international relations (like Charlie’s decision to double the budget of aid to Afghanistan) were made by individuals, with little deliberation or discussion. Politicians are also depicted as being corrupt or rash in both policy-making and their personal lives. Politics are shown as being driven as much or more by personal opinion as by the interest or will of the American public. Additionally, the film focused on the government’s misleading and deception of its citizens. Many of the operations in Afghanistan occurred without the knowledge of the American people, and in some instances efforts were made to keep governmental actions secret from citizens. In discussion, the professor screening the lecture mentioned that some operations funded by Congress are confidential to anyone not on the committees which fund them, so not even all members of Congress, let alone the public, are aware of every operation in which the US is involved.