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Belmont Club

The Coming of the Telephone

January 25th, 2013 - 5:14 pm

When Marine Corps Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright stepped down as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he was asked what America’s greatest achievement in Afghanistan would be.  He said unhesitatingly that it was providing the cell phone.

“As we leave Afghanistan, the thing that will most affect that culture over the long term is leaving behind that network and those cell phones because they are talking across mountains and social barriers that heretofore have never been crossed by that culture,” said Cartwright today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies during a speech on how information technologies are changing war. “I don’t know where that’s going to take them, but the introduction of that technology is probably far more lasting than anything else that we’re going to do in Afghanistan and far more influential.”

That is not as flippant a reply as it may seem. The cellphone may be the 21st century equivalent of the Roman roads, those ribbons of pavement which once held the Mediterranean civilization together hundreds of years. The roads are still remembered in sayings: mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam — all roads lead to Rome. And now the roads are virtual.

But the roads will bear what fortune brings, as General Mattis learned when he was unceremoniously replaced at CENTCOM. For all the fancy phone systems there are today Thomas Ricks wrote “I am told that General Mattis was traveling and in a meeting when an aide passed him a note telling him that the Pentagon had announced his replacement as head of Central Command. It was news to him — he hadn’t received a phone call or a heads-up from anyone at the Pentagon or the White House” .

Mattis momentarily found himself in the pre-cellphone age. He was instructed in almost Victorian terms via the scribbled note. Thankfully it was borne by an aide. It might well have been borne by carrier pigeon.

But Mattis shouldn’t take it personally. News travels slowly in Washington to keep pace with the cogitations of statesmen. Why it took all of several months for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to realize what was at the root of her recent troubles.  She gravely told US lawmakers that the Arab Spring shattered security in region.

“Benghazi didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Mrs Clinton said at the start of the hearing. “The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region.”

After conveying this insight to the lawmakers, she expressed her determination to put things to rights. “We cannot afford to retreat now. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened,” she said. She would yet leave the world safer than she found it.

And to do that she would need to clean house. Now if only she could fire the deadwood in the State Department, she explained to those who wondered why she had still not acted against those who performed poorly during the crisis at Benghazi. Due to a fault in the law (it’s always Congress’ fault) the State Department employees under her charge were apparently harder to get rid of than four star generals at CENTCOM.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed this week that several employees who were “removed” from their positions in the wake of the Libya terror attack are still being paid and have not actually left her department …

“Under federal statute and regulations, unsatisfactory leadership is not grounds for finding a breach of duty,” she said. “And the (review board) did not find that these four individuals breached their duty.”

You’ve got to do a whole lot more than mess up while couple of US consulates burn down to get Hillary going — something really dire — like make a video or something. Perhaps Hillary should’ve taken a page from Mattis incident and wait until these functionaries were traveling then send them a note. It worked in getting rid of Mattis. It might work with them.

But messages don’t write themselves. And just as the Roman roads had no moral content in themselves, able to carry both the legions of Empire and invading barbarians with equal facility, the cell phones of today will convey drivel either way. What signals they bear is dependent not on technology, but on the goodwill or malice of the communicating parties at both ends. A tribesman at one end and Clinton on the other — what music might they make together, or vice versa. “What difference does it make?,” as Hillary once said. Well put, madame secretary. Well put.


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