02/04/2013 08:52 am ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

Wanted: A Few Good Experts on African 'Chaos'

Experts on North and West Africa are hard to find. When guys with names like Gbagbo and Ouattara squared off in 2011, the coverage -- or lack thereof -- was appalling. Previously, in 2005, there was a coup in Mauritania and I remember being at my old gig at the Council on Foreign Relations, scrambling to find a Mauritania expert. Now that Mali has heated up, I did a quick Lexis-Nexis scan of a few bylines who've written recently on the uprising there. Virtually none of them has published a thing on Mali in the past few years, either because of out-to-lunch editors or because their expertise is a chameleon-like thing that gravitates toward conflicts (A welcome exception is Mike McGovern, whose work on West Africa is exemplary). Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations even singled out the Sahel as evidence that ungoverned territories do not brew terrorism. Consider this gem from 2010:

For years, observers warned that Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad were gravely at risk. And yet the extreme ideology of al Qaeda has failed to resonate with the region's population, most of whom practice a relatively moderate brand of Sufi Islam. Despite weak institutions, vast un-policed territories and porous frontiers, the region has failed to emerge as "the next Afghanistan."

Oops. (In fairness, Patrick's overall point is something I largely agree with -- that we often overreact to ungoverned spaces.) The trouble, as I see it, is that chaos tends to breed not just extremism but also bad commentary -- Robert Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy is 224 pages of evidence of this kind of analytical bile. In the early 1990s Richard Holbrooke described the emerging chaos in Somalia as "Vietmalia." In the 2000s, Niall Ferguson called the chaotic and increasingly symbiotic relationship between Beijing and Washington "Chimerica." Now we are being told that Mali is descending into what The Economist has termed "Afrighanistan" (Et tu, Economist?)

Notice a pattern? The world's most prized minds on geopolitics have reduced the world's problems into poppy headline-friendly phrases that launched a thousand think-tank brown bags. To be sure, the world looks increasingly complex -- um, Tourags are whom again? Assyrians are not the same thing as Syrians? -- and so these handy phrases can help explain difficult policy conundrums to a lay audience. They also dovetail with a larger trend in our pop culture of slapping two words together -- "Ginormous," "frenemy," etc. -- which is not all that atypical in world history textbooks -- after all, "Eurasia" is a real part of the globe.

The trend of slapping two countries' names together and calling it a clever solution comes from several forces. First, the pressure-cooker environment among experts and authors to coin new phrases, to sell books and to be invited on the speaking circuit. "Offshore Balancing Against China's Emergent Regional Hegemony in the South China Sea" is a less sexy title and less likely to get you a TED invitation than calling the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia our "Japanamericapinestralia." Our Americas policy increasingly resembles a case of "Cubexazuela" (our primary interests are Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela). Trans-Atlantic relations can best be defined as Frermanitain (the club of France, Germany and Great Britain). And our approach toward Africa resembles what I like to call "Malgerisomaliopiabokoharamakenyongod'ivoire." (I know, it rolls off the tongue.)

Sure, maybe such neologisms are distracting and dumbed-down. Maybe they are often a distortion of the reality on the ground, not to mention they insult our intelligence by oversimplifying complex events. And perhaps that may explain why they are met with scorn generally from insiders (see "AfPak," which was not only confusing but also probably should have been inverted), and even full-fledged rejection by the authors (Ferguson even distanced himself a few years later from his "Chimerica" phrase and predicted an "amicable divorce" between China and America). The trend shows the utter lack of imagination among practitioners and academics in the field. There hasn't been a good catchy "End of History" or "Clash of Civilizations" phrase to define our current era. So foreign policy wonks throw everything they can up against a wall and see what sticks. Hence, Afrighanistan.

I shudder to think what will happen the next time a civil war pops up in some forgotten corner of the globe. Expect more lazy comparisons to Afghanistan.