WASHINGTON WAS A NERVOUS CITY IN LATE OCTOBER. My taxi driver had anthrax on his mind. “I haven’t opened my mailbox in ten days,” he confided as he swung onto Pennsylvania Avenue. The dome of the Capitol sprang up before us, and I was startled to realize that the first thought to enter my mind was, “It’s still there.”

I had come to Washington to interview the lobbyist for Pakistan, which is arguably the most important country in the world for the United States at this moment—not only because it is adjacent to Afghanistan, but also because it possesses nuclear weapons that, with a shift of internal political winds, could be diverted into some very bad hands. The person who occupies this position happens to be a familiar figure in Texas politics: Charlie Wilson, the former congressman from Lufkin, whose career spanned three decades before he retired from office in 1996. It is a toss-up whether Wilson is better known for the escapades that earned him the nickname Good-time Charlie or for his leadership in getting Congress to provide arms to the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union during the eighties; presumably, it is the latter role that brought him and Pakistan together. At a time when the world is going mad, when unthinkable events are commonplace, when rumor is more prevalent than fact, everyone seems to be looking for Somebody Who Knows Something, and for me that somebody was Charlie Wilson.

But in a larger sense, I had come to Washington because of Francis Loewenheim. I encountered him in my senior year at Rice University, in a course he taught on modern European history. He was a small, bespectacled, eccentric man who earnestly believed that history was the most important thing in the world and did little else during his lifetime other than seek out its lessons. His favorite aphorism was “Every man his own historian,” which I took to be a mandate to examine the world around us and make judgments based on evidence. I still remember his final exam: “Hegel said that one can learn nothing from history except that one can learn nothing from history. But isn’t it more accurate to say that we often learn the wrong thing from history? Discuss the use and misuse of history from 1914 to the present.” I didn’t do so well on the final, but at least I’m still working on it—which is why I went to see Wilson.

He was settling into a new office on the day I saw him, and movers hauled in furniture as we talked. At 68 he looked splendid in American-flag suspenders—red and white stripes next to a field of tiny white stars on a navy background, running the length of each strap. His dark hair showed only a few streaks of gray. Next to his desk sat the finest-looking globe you ever saw, made entirely from semiprecious stones: coral, agate, mother-of-pearl, and for the oceans, lapis lazuli. On the floor lay the grip stock for a Stinger missile, waiting to be mounted on the wall, along with a plaque certifying that it was the first Stinger to destroy a Soviet helicopter in Afghanistan.

“We got what we wanted, then we abandoned them” was Wilson’s one-sentence summary of American policy toward his client. “I was outraged, as a congressman, when we began to distance ourselves from Pakistan,” he told me. “They had been loyal to the United States for forty years. They made it possible to spy on the Russians with U-2 flights. Did you know that Francis Gary Powers [a U-2 pilot who bailed out when his plane was hit by a Soviet missile] took off from Peshawar? Pakistan arranged for Kissinger’s secret trip to China. They made it possible for us to arm the mujahideen, and they paid the price of being bombed.”

We distanced ourselves, Wilson said, because Pakistan—faced with a hostile neighbor, India, that had nuclear weapons—was building nuclear weapons of its own, a fact we had conveniently ignored as long as the Soviets were in Afghanistan. But then they pulled out, the Berlin Wall fell, and we didn’t need Pakistan anymore. We promptly imposed sanctions on Pakistan for building nuclear weapons. A Pakistani does not have to be a Muslim fundamentalist to be skeptical about American foreign policy. As a former official wrote in the New York Times this fall, “[The skeptics] see an American pattern of shifting alliances, short memories, and a pronounced tendency to forget its friends when it tires of them. . . . Once the Americans are done with Afghanistan and depart, will Pakistan again be left to clear the debris? Refugees and a sprawling culture of Kalashnikovs, narcotics, sectarian terrorism: all these were the unwelcome gifts of the last Pakistani-American effort in Afghanistan.”

“There’s an intellectual argument inside Pakistan right now,” Wilson said, “and I’m afraid we’re losing it. It’s not in the street, it’s in the middle class. There’s no argument over opposing terrorism, but the argument we are losing is that we are pissing off all the Muslims, and nobody knows what is going to happen in Afghanistan, and they think as sure as God made little green apples, America is going to screw Pakistan again and leave them with the mess.” Wilson has appeared on Fox News to say his own mea culpas about ignoring Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Soviet departure, and he elaborated on them to me. “Some of us [in Congress] tried, but we didn’t try hard enough,” he said. “I put myself in that class, and it will bother me forever. For one one-hundredth of what we are spending now, we could have gotten rid of the minefields—you know Afghanistan is the most mined country in the world, don’t you?—given them seed, fertilizer, sheep, electrical wire, roads. We needed a mini-Marshall Plan, but no one wanted to bother with it. The Afghans couldn’t organize a government, couldn’t agree who would be in charge, and finally I said the heck with it.”

Charlie Wilson’s description of U.S.-Pakistan relations shows how much the past affects the present. Pakistan is worried that history will repeat itself. America has its own ghosts from the past to worry about: that Pakistan is the next Iran, that its government is shaky, that its intelligence apparatus and army are riddled with Taliban sympathizers, that it promotes jihad in Indian (but predominantly Islamic) Kashmir but tries to fend it off at home. Years of corruption and military buildup have left Pakistan too poor to educate its own people, leaving much of the job to an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 madrasahs—schools at which a militant, fundamentalist version of Islam is the only subject. Our closest ally in the region is the world’s leading producer of future terrorists. But if America looks only at how we view Pakistan and not at how Pakistan views us, we will, as Hegel asserted, learn nothing from history.

I know what Francis Loewenheim would have said: We can arm ourselves with bombs, but if we do not also arm ourselves with a knowledge of history, we will only repeat its mistakes. The most important lesson history has to offer us is that to disengage from the world is to invite vulnerability. America turned to isolationism after World War I, but it could not escape World War II. How different the world might have been had the United States joined the League of Nations and acted in concert with Britain and France to prevent the re-arming of Hitler’s Germany in violation of the Versailles Treaty. That mistake was repeated in Iraq during the past decade. Isolationism does not have a good track record; yet it was the policy embraced in the early days of the current Bush administration: the unilateral spurning of international agreements on the environment and arms control; the withdrawal from an active role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; the declaration that “China is a competitor, not a strategic partner”; the rejection of the idea that the United States should be involved in nation-building. Yet nation-building, in the case of the Marshall Plan, was the most successful foreign policy undertaken by the United States since the French were wooed to our side in the Revolutionary War: It turned enemies into friends, which is precisely what we have to do now. To reject it was a misuse of history.

That phase of the Bush administration ended on September 11, when we found ourselves in desperate need of help from the international community. In the weeks since, George W. Bush has shown himself to be a strong wartime president. He has described America’s cause as no less than “a fight to save civilization,” and he is right. If the twentieth century will be remembered for its mammoth clashes between states, the twenty-first century appears to be a time when the very idea of the democratic state is under attack by those who resist the idea of universal values: human rights, free exercise of religion, free access to information, freedom itself. But this war cannot be won in Afghanistan alone—or on the battlefield alone. It must be won, country by country and classroom by classroom, by an America that has learned from history to stay engaged after the bombs have stopped falling, to see itself as others see it, and to put its money where its mouth is.

Well, Mr. Loewenheim, how did I do this time?