WHY IS A NICE FELLOW like Mike Pence so worked up over a former Soviet Republic 5,000 air miles away? Let’s start with the etymology.
In the 1940s, the editor of the Tulsa Tribune, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, popularized for Americans “Afghanistanism,” a colloquialism originating in the British Parliament meaning concentrating on problems in distant parts while ignoring controversial issues at home.
“The tragic fact is that many an editorial writer can’t hit a short-range target,” Jones wrote. “He’s hell on distance. He can pontificate about the situation in Afghanistan with perfect safety. It takes more guts to dig up the dirt on the sheriff.”
Indeed, my very first editorial was a powerfully worded — courageous even — condemnation of Idi Amin, the cannibal despot of Uganda.
Nobody in my corn-belt readership knew anything about Uganda. Nobody, therefore, was likely to appear in front of my desk to confront me for the shallow and simplistic observations on which a typical editorial is built — or a political speech.
Which brings us back to Mike Pence.
In a fiery address last week to a friendly audience at the Heritage Foundation, Pence proclaimed that Putin “must be stopped” and Putin “will pay,” adding “There can be no room in the conservative movement for apologists to Putin; there is only room in this movement for champions of freedom.”
When I knew the man Pence back here in Indiana we both considered ourselves champions of freedom but neither of us could have found Ukraine on a map. It is hard for me to imagine that it has since risen to a level of importance in his mind that he would expend the treasure of his generation and the lives of our sons on a battlefield ruled by tactical nuclear weapons.
No, I suspect “Afghanistanism” is in play again.
Someone in the Pence organization has extrapolated to “Ukrainianism.” They have figured out that this poor, distant, corrupt unitary republic would be a useful foil in a presidential campaign.
For a candidate making promises, it is a more tractable issue than the ongoing social and economic destruction of our own nation, and nobody can say conclusively that it is unimportant to United States interests.
The British humorist Stephen Potter, author of “The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship,” contended that you can stop any discussion on foreign policy by interjecting at just the right moment, “But only in the South.”
Afghanistanism-Ukrainianism works something like that. The mere mention freezes serious thought and shields the speaker from criticism. We feel stuck in the scene from “Wag the Dog” where Conrad Brean confronts the CIA agent: “And if you go to war again, who is it going to be against? Sweden and Togo?”
Incidentally, was Vietnam merely a way to divert attention from LBJ’s social-justice disasters? Is Iraq all fixed now? How about Libya, Zambia, South Africa? One would have thought we would have resolved one or two of these faraway crises if only by chance.
Anyway, did we ever find out what was going on in Afghanistan itself? What the goal was? The strategy? What we were doing there? Why we left?
Sorry, can’t tell you. Afghanistanism is always classified. — tcl