To Save Ukraine, Speaker Johnson must find his inner Charlie Wilson

To Save Ukraine, Speaker Johnson must find his inner Charlie Wilson | The Hill

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House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and the late Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas)

The movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” based on the nonfiction book by George Crile, features Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, the well-connected, hard-drinking, womanizing Democratic congressman from Texas who found the key to defeating the Soviet Union after its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan during the Cold War.

As dramatically depicted In the movie, Wilson visits a huge, squalid Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and realizes that the Afghan mujahideen are fighting America’s fight against the Soviet Union. With the aid of a wealthy, beautiful Texas woman (Julia Roberts) Charlie appropriates funds to arm the mujahideen with sophisticated weapons, which they use to shoot down Soviet helicopters and blow up Soviet tanks.

The Soviet Army is forced into a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, and two years later, the Soviet Union collapses as the Cold War comes to an end.  It might seem like a Cold War fairy tale, except that it really happened.

If the Ukraine-Israel military aid package clears the Senate, which appears likely, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) will face a stark choice. He can be Charlie Wilson by allowing the aid package to go to a House floor vote, where it should prevail with his support and keep Ukraine fighting. Or he can refuse a floor vote, in which case Vladimir Putin could short-list him for Hero of the Russian Federation.

Withholding U.S. military aid will likely hand Putin the geopolitical victory of his lifetime. His thus-successful conquest of Ukraine will damage core American security interests. As one Republican congressman put it, “We can’t allow Vladimir Putin to march through Europe, and we understand the necessity of assisting there.” 

Actually, that’s what Johnson himself said just a few months ago. He also stressed the need for border policy changes, but then pronounced a bi-partisan Senate border proposal as “dead on arrival” even before it arrived and even though Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) praised the proposal as offering “real change” that would reduce illegal border crossings.

Johnson understands the stakes in Ukraine but is obviously afraid to cross Donald Trump and the handful of extreme Republican congressmen who have vowed to make Johnson an ex-House Speaker if he allows a floor vote on Ukraine aid. 

Johnson should sit down and watch “Charlie Wilson’s War,” or read Crile’s book. They tell an inspiring story of how one congressman became a legend and changed history.

In the movie, after returning from the Afghan refugee camp Wilson tells a CIA agent (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) that he saw children with their hands blown off because “they tried to pick up something shiny,” which were land mines that the Russians had disguised as toys. “They’re raping the women, bayoneting the pregnant ones.”  Charlie Wilson understood the moral and geopolitical stakes in Afghanistan.

Not all that much has changed since Wilson’s day. Today, Russians are shelling Ukrainian maternity wards, raping Ukrainian women, and kidnapping Ukrainian children.

The Soviet Union sought global dominance and diminished American power. Russia, as part of an informal alliance with China and Iran, seeks the same thing.

The real-life Charlie Wilson observed that Afghanistan “is the only place in the world where the forces of freedom are killing Russian soldiers.” The forces of democratic Ukraine have killed or wounded over 300,000 Russian soldiers without loss of a single American soldier.

Here’s another way to think of the choice Johnson faces: If he blocks aid to Ukraine, and Putin “marches through Europe,” Churchill’s prophetic condemnation of the British government’s craven appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s could well apply to him. “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations and a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team, which convicted a U.S. senator and six representatives of bribery. His book, Into Siberia: George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia, was just published by St. Martin’s Press. Follow on @GregoryWallance.

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