In the Muslim World, With Charlie Wilson

Charlie Wilson in Afghanistan - wiki - embed.jpg

Rep. Charlie Wilson in Afghanistan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most memorable assignments of my reporting career involved black-market arms, an ex-beauty queen, and enough international intrigue to inspire a movie--which it ultimately did. But it's a quiet dinner from that action-packed week that stands out now as I watch events unfold in Egypt.

The dinner took place in 1986 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and it spoke volumes about a U.S. foreign policy that, in the interest of realpolitik, has all too often abandoned the principles for which this nation is supposed to stand, favoring the rich over the poor, the powerful over the disenfranchised, and--this is the scary part--the past over the future.

I don't remember all of the guests, but their names were less important than the urbanity, self-confidence, and sense of entitlement that set them so dramatically apart from people just outside the room where we were dining. The host was then-Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. My ticket to this haunting evening: the late Rep. Charlie Wilson, who will need no introduction to anyone who has seen "Charlie Wilson's War," the 2007 film that Tom Hanks produced about the Texas Democrat's improbable adventures.

Charlie was Falstaff without the gut. Tall and Marlboro-Man handsome with a baritone voice, he enjoyed good booze (lots of it) and good-looking women (lots of them), and he did so with a disarming candor and self-deprecating wit that allowed him to get away with it--far longer than was good for his health.

But, as the movie and the George Crile book that inspired it detail, Charlie was an idealistic cowboy at heart who found the cause of his life in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He used his position on the House Appropriations Committee to carve out a stream of "covert" funding and arms to the Afghan freedom fighters that ultimately allowed them to oust the Soviets.

I encased the word covert in quotation marks because Charlie liked to brag about his exploits to all of the reporters who covered him, including me, at the time a Washington correspondent for The Houston Post. One day, I asked Charlie if he would let a reporter accompany him on one of his trips to visit the mujahedeen. He was crazy enough to say yes.

Which is how I found myself sitting in a middle seat in steerage while Charlie and his former Miss World/USA girlfriend enjoyed the amenities of first class on a flight from Paris (where I met up with the happy couple) to Pakistan.

Pakistan was our ally in the not-so-covert war against the Soviets and the conduit for all of the money that Charlie was sending to the mujahedeen. But it was immediately obvious that not everyone in the country appreciated the role that Uncle Sam was playing. Upon landing in Karachi, Charlie, the girlfriend, and I were hustled aboard another plane; rioting in the city made it too dangerous for us to stay, U.S. officials told us. So it was off to Islamabad, where the U.S. ambassador, Deane Hinton, insisted that I bunk in the fortress-like U.S. Embassy complex, where Wilson was also staying.

The ensuing week, which took us to the edge of the border with Afghanistan, left me puzzling over a disturbing question: If the United States was helping the country's freedom fighters to reestablish the "native Islamic culture"--the exact phrase that a government employee I met on the trip used--why was I detecting so much hostility? Why did U.S. Embassy employees have to work in a fortress, and why did women need a quartet of Marines to escort them when they left the building?

One clue, I later came to believe, was the special dinner I got to attend with Charlie, which the Pakistani president hosted in the lawmaker's honor. The drive to the affair made me feel the yawning chasm between the First and Third Worlds. Through the car window unfolded scenes from a life untouched by modernity. There were primitive houses made of what appeared to be mud. There were wagons pulled by oxen. There were bright-eyed little girls whom I was tempted to stow in my bag because of the societal segregation awaiting them.

Crossing the threshold into the house where the president was hosting his dinner, however, found us in a different world. My Westerner's sense of superior fortune swiftly slipped away as the female guests doffed their dull outerwear to reveal dazzling clothes, jewels, and makeup. (Having naively followed all of the State Department's wardrobe and grooming recommendations to avoid offending local Islamic sensibilities, I was woefully underdressed and underdone.)

Nor was there any way I could enter the conversation, an ultra-worldly affair sprinkled with references to places and people that made it clear I was in a crowd of jet-setters whose neighborhood was the globe. I was, as they say in the sports world, out of my league.

But if I was, how much more were the people just outside the walls of the house where we were dining? Suddenly, the chasm that yawned widest for me was not the one between the First and the Third Worlds but the one between the people at the dinner and the people just outside the door.

Inside was an international elite for whom the local mores seemed not to apply. The well-educated women and the sophisticated men who were conversing with them appeared to be perfectly content with the hypocritical system that allowed them to live privileged existences while their fellow citizens outside the walls were relegated to straitened, outmoded lives. And so did we Americans, their partners at dinner and in foreign policy.

Before he died last year, Charlie Wilson argued that the Taliban took over in Afghanistan because America abandoned the freedom fighters after they humiliated the Soviets. He may have a point, although I suspect that the reasons for 9/11 go far deeper. Charlie was right about the need for America to stay engaged in the world. But I'd argue that we need to start picking better dinner partners.

This article appeared in the Saturday, February 5, 2011 edition of National Journal.