Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History

Congressional History By Kevin R. Kosar January 11, 2024

George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003). Buy a copy.

Although dated, this book remains worth reading.

First, it shows how Charlie Wilson, a Texas Democrat, used his position on the House Appropriations Committee to direct foreign policy. In this case, it was supplying arms to the mujahideen of Afghanistan who were fighting the Soviet Union. Wilson went toe-to-toe with both his colleagues and the executive branch to fund a massive covert operation that helped bring down the USSR. (The relevance of this incident to the present-day war in Ukraine is worth pondering.)

Second, the book gives readers a sense of how corrupt the House had become by the 1980s. Media were often complicit. They crowed over Wilson as a ladies’ man and chuckled when Wilson took a belly dancer on congressional junkets and mostly turned a blind eye to his raging alcoholism and the troubles it caused. He gave them inside information and entertainment, and they bit their tongues. Decades of Democratic dominance of Congress and the accompanying corruption elicited a GOP and voter backlash, which Julian Zelizer and other scholars have described.

Third, the book is an exposé: author George Crile describes the machinations within DC power corridors and in the mountains and steppes of Afghanistan to the home of a conservative Texas socialite and fundraiser, where the plan was hatched to have the Central Intelligence Agency help the Afghani resistance.

Not to be undersold is that the book is an entertaining romp of a read, which helps explain why it was made into a film.

Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute was an aide on Capitol Hill and had some experience with Rep. Wilson. Schmitt writes, “There are a lot of words one could use to describe former congressman Charles Wilson—drunkard, sleazy, womanizer, patriot—but the one that most comes to mind in my dealings with him was simply ‘persistent.'” He describes how Wilson was relentless in working staff and legislators on Capitol Hill to get what he wanted enacted into law.

As such, Charlie Wilson’s War is a helpful reminder that policy gets made by being a workhorse, rather than a show horse, an obvious truth that all legislators and staff should embrace.

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He worked for more than a decade as a nonpartisan researcher at the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service. Kevin also hosts the Understanding Congress podcast and is co-editor of the book, Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform.


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