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The Boston Globe

Charlie Wilson's Zen Lesson


Two messages are appended to the end of "Charlie Wilson's War," the artful Hollywood flick about a hedonistic Texas congressman who in the 1980s raised covert funding for the Afghan mujahideen from $5 million to $1 billion, thereby helping to drive the Red Army out of Afghanistan and precipitate the implosion of the Soviet Union. An explicit moral of the movie comes from the real-life Wilson, who lamented that America did the right thing in Afghanistan but messed up "the endgame." Today there can be little doubt that Washington's brusque loss of interest in the fate of Afghanistan after the Soviets' withdrawal was a calamitous error.

But it is the second, more philosophical message that ought to be at the center of current debate about America's role in the world. This lesson, which the Bush administration has learned all too slowly, teaches the need for humility in those who make America's moves on a global chessboard - a virtue that seems almost totally absent from the patriotic posturing of the presidential candidates.

Toward the end of "Charlie Wilson's War," a CIA officer played by the pitch-perfect Philip Seymour Hoffman cautions the Wilson character (played by Tom Hanks) not to be too sure they have done something glorious. To make the point, he tells the story of a Zen master who observes the people of his village celebrating a young boy's new horse as a wonderful gift. "We'll see," the Zen master says. When the boy falls off the horse and breaks a leg, everyone says the horse is a curse. "We'll see," says the master. Then war breaks out, the boy cannot be conscripted because of his injury, and everyone now says the horse was a fortunate gift. "We'll see," the master says again.

This is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's way of warning against triumphalism. Yes, Afghan suffering at the hands of the Soviet invaders was atrocious, and the Soviets' defeat by Afghan mujahideen armed with US Stinger missiles ought to have been a humanitarian liberation. But the fighting among Afghan warlords that ensued opened the way for the fanatical Taliban to take power, for Al Qaeda to set up terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, for the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, and then for to the Bush administration's global war on terror, whose destabilizing effects are likely to extend far into the future.

In a similar vein, Bush should have foreseen that the invasion and occupation of Iraq could become a strategic gift to Iran; that his pledge to foster democracy in the Muslim world while backing Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan would make America look hypocritical; or that his reluctance to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution to halt Israel's bombing of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 would inflame anti-American feelings in the Arab world. These are the sorts of unintended consequences a Zen master would expect - and a president must try to anticipate.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company

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