Long's lessons of the Cold War

January 09, 2008|By GREGORY KANE

When Rep. Clarence D. Long served Maryland's 2nd Congressional District for 22 years, he probably had no idea he'd be immortalized in a Hollywood movie.

But about halfway through the film Charlie Wilson's War, you hear that a House of Representatives subcommittee chairman named "Doc" Long holds the key to funding the mujahedeen rebels' covert war against Soviet troops in 1980s Afghanistan.

"Doc" was Long's nickname. Before he graced the halls of Congress, he was an economics professor at the Johns Hopkins University. He was a liberal Democrat when 2nd District voters sent him to Congress in 1962.

Long was also a Cold War zealot in the mold of fellow liberal Democrats like President Kennedy, President Johnson, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson.

They're all dead now. Long died in 1994, 10 years after his district was redistricted and voters booted him out of office in favor of former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. But I had learned what a staunch Cold War advocate he was years before, when he was still in Congress.

Long was speaking at a community forum when a questioner brought up the subject of normalizing relations with Fidel Castro's Cuba.

"It presents a possibility for trades," the questioner said, "For deals. For baseball."

Long rejected the idea out of hand. So I wasn't surprised to learn that he had a hand in providing the dollars that helped fund the Central Intelligence Agency's covert arming of Afghan mujahedeen.

But would Long want to be remembered as one of the men who helped bring the Taliban to power in Afghanistan?

That appears to be Long's legacy, and also Wilson's. The movie is about the 11-term Texas Democrat and his efforts to get the House defense appropriations subcommittee to fund the mujahedeen. He was successful; the mujahedeen prevailed; the Soviets lost and their empire crumbled.

There are several lessons to be learned from this. The first is that Republicans need to stop giving President Reagan the sole credit for bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Democrats like Wilson and our own "Doc" Long should get some of the credit. It's beyond me why Democrats continue to let Republicans get away with this, but the next time it happens maybe at least one Democrat will correct his colleagues across the aisle.

The second is that it's almost never a good idea to heavily arm religious-fanatic wackos. I'm not even remotely on shaky ground here. God Almighty would give me a hearty "Amen!" on this one.

Think of the irony involved in Wilson's support for the mujahedeen, many of whom were Taliban. Wilson was a liberal, pro-choice Democrat who supported the failed Equal Rights Amendment. He no doubt supported Title IX, perhaps the most revolutionary piece of legislation passed by Congress that opened the doors of higher education to American women.

But one result of the mujahedeen victory was the Taliban - with their backward attitude about women and darn near everything else - coming to power. It was in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida clique cut their teeth on war and terrorism.

And that's the third lesson: Because of that thing called the law of unintended consequences, our legislators should be open and aboveboard with the American people. Our lawmakers need to think things through. Sometimes bad things happen with the best of intentions.

Prohibitionists had good intentions. They wanted to ban booze to prevent alcoholism, which was linked to husbands and fathers abandoning and abusing their children. We now know the results of those good intentions.

Charlie Wilson's War - based on the George Crile book of the same name - tells of how Wilson visited Pakistan and saw for himself the plight of Afghan refugees who fled the war. He heard their horror tales of how Soviet troops raped, murdered and pillaged.

Afghans didn't fare much better under the Taliban. The film has Wilson addressing that, implying that the Taliban rose to power because Congress wouldn't allocate funds to rebuild schools in Afghanistan.

"We [bleeped] up the end game," the film quotes Wilson at the end. This poor guy actually thought that the mujahedeen, having driven the Soviets from their country for butting into Afghanistan's affairs, would somehow accept Americans doing the same thing.

America's elected officials are supposed to be accountable to the American people. We have a system of checks and balances that is supposed to make sure that congressmen, no matter how noble their intentions, aren't allowed to go off and fund some foreign crusade that is their passion du jour.

That's the final lesson to be learned: Someone needs to do some serious checking on our system of checks and balances.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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For Gregory Kane's column archive, go to baltimoresun.com/kane

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