TOPICS > Politics > GWEN'S TAKE

The perils of conventional wisdom – geopolitical edition

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  March 21, 2014 at 2:39 PM EST
Media surround the relative of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 answers media questions at Lido Hotel on March 11, 2014 in Beijing, China. Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Media surround the relative of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 answers media questions at Lido Hotel on March 11, 2014 in Beijing, China. Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

When it comes to politics -– and missing planes for that matter -– it helps to be an expert, or at least to play one on TV.

As I type this, cable news is playing mutely on the television on my desk. The “Breaking News” banner reads: “Officials: This is the best lead we have right now.”

That caption perfectly captures the endless speculation we have been enduring about the search for the Malaysian jetliner that disappeared March 8 in a fog of mystery worthy of nighttime soap opera.

For days, everyone was operating on the best information they had right then. It mattered little whether the information was correct. Everywhere I went people asked if I knew what had become of the plane. (If I knew, would I have kept it to myself?)

This approach –- let’s call it speculative invention — also completely fits the way we absorb and analyze our domestic politics. In general, we know just enough information to be dangerous -– or at least to be guided by opinion rather than fact.

In an election year, speculation is part of the potion. Polls can only do so much to predict how things will turn out in the end. So we (and the candidates) start brewing up conventional wisdom pretty early in the process. This usually includes bits of detail combined with educated guessing and –- occasionally -– discussions with actual voters.

Why wait for an actual election when we can start making stuff up years in advance? There are books to be written; beats to be assigned. No need to wait for a candidate to announce his or her intentions, right?

In the midst of geopolitical crisis, this approach works even less well.

We were supposed to be welcomed with flowers in Iraq. And we were supposed to have partners we could work with in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Decades later, things have proved a bit more complicated.

But we couldn’t resist. In the latest instance, it was way too easy to boil the upheaval in Ukraine down to the bad guy (presumably former President Viktor Yanukovych) versus the good gal (his imprisoned foe Yulia Tymoshenko). Neither seems central to the dispute now.

We couldn’t help but watch the crowds massing in Kiev’s Maidan Square through the same lens that we used when other nations fell. As we have since discovered, the view from Kiev (or Cairo or Baghdad, for that matter) is seldom a comprehensive one. We soon discovered the bigger challenge would be in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and perhaps still other former Soviet territories.

When it got complicated watching here at home, domestic political analysis took over. Critics began casting the conflict as a new Cold War; a personal test of relative strength and weakness involving two world leaders who have never seemed fond of one another.

This conventional wisdom was too hard to resist, even as it became clear that this would not be your classic post-war East-West dispute.

I suppose the lesson here is to always resist conventional wisdom, no matter its source. This is a theme I suspect we’ll be returning to again and again.