Should the U.S. send troops to fight Ebola? Wrong question

There are questions about whether it’s wise of President Obama to deploy 3,000 troops to West Africa as part of an effort to prevent an Ebola outbreak there from becoming a global pandemic. There’s an obvious contrast here with the much smaller number of troops on the ground in Iraq dealing with the most urgent terrorist threat, but the more I think about it the more I doubt that’s the right comparison. A logistical role is one our military has played well in past humanitarian crises. And there’s no denying that, as with terrorist threats, we would prefer to win the fight where it is now before it comes to us. Bottom line: As long as we are asking our troops to do what they do well and not what they aren’t — so, moving people, supplies and equipment efficiently, but not playing doctor if they aren’t doctors — it’s probably the right thing to do.

All that said, what is crystal clear is this is one more example of how our international institutions are weak, sclerotic bureaucracies that are better at protecting and growing their own turf than at accomplishing anything meaningful for the people outside their own office towers.

Until now, the lead role in containing and resolving the Ebola outbreak was reserved for the World Health Organization. This health arm of the United Nations has spent months on the job, the result of which is the spread of the disease to four additional countries (so far) and the deaths of some 2,400 people. The only role the WHO seems to have performed somewhat ably is to document the crisis it has failed to contain, and even there its success is limited: The only thing we really know about the number of cases of Ebola, and thus the magnitude of the problem, is that we don’t know how many people really have it. As Scott Gottlieb and Tevi Troy put it in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today:

“The World Health Organization’s failed response to the Ebola crisis shows anew that the group is more a politically minded policy-making body than a relief agency. The WHO claims that it lacked the resources to respond to Ebola, but while the outbreak was spiraling out of control in West Africa, the organization had plenty of time and money to mount an international campaign to combat what it flagged last month as a ‘grave concern.’ Not Ebola, but electronic cigarettes.”

As bad as the Ebola outbreak has been, this is a much slower-moving disease than other illnesses because (so far, at least) it isn’t transmitted as easily as, say, influenza. As terrible as it is for 2,400 people and counting to have died, a six-month outbreak of a more communicable disease could easily have killed far more people. Perhaps health authorities were too complacent in this case, but this experience doesn’t augur well for their ability to react quickly and effectively in the case of a truly fast-moving pandemic.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when the chief international institution for public health is more adept at producing health rankings with an ideological bias — which is how the U.S. ends up low on the WHO’s list mostly because our health system isn’t wholly socialized — than at solving health crises. Its thousands of employees might be able to ring the alarm bell, but on the current evidence they cannot answer it.

More broadly speaking, a purely logistical role is one the blue helmets of the U.N.’s peacekeeping “force” ought to be able to handle without U.S. assistance. Building large health centers is something other nations’ military engineers ought to be able to do. Apparently not. At a time when critical U.S. military attention and resources are required elsewhere, it is disappointing the rest of the world’s resources aren’t able to fulfill this mission.

If we have to act as the world’s doctor, it will be an even longer time than we thought before we aren’t asked to be its policeman. The real question about the U.S. military’s role in the Ebola outbreak is why that’s the case.

Reader Comments 0

114 comments
InTheMiddle2
InTheMiddle2

Why is it necessary for the US to send troops. The countries affected have their own military and their own police force. I am certain they even have tents. Is it really our place to step in and spend money in countries that wont take care of themselves

Squirrel_Whisperer
Squirrel_Whisperer

@InTheMiddle2 

Let those countries take care of it themselves? They're failing miserably with the death count in the two thousands. What do you think they will be able to do when the toll reaches 100,000 by the end of the year as some are predicting? So far the disease has mostly been in rural areas. Imagine a major outbreak in a city like Lagos in Nigeria. At some point in time a sick person will make it onto an airplane bound for the US or Europe or Asia. When that happens and people outside Africa begin getting sick, you will be crying, "Why didn't somebody do something!"

TheRealJDW
TheRealJDW

Why? For the same reasons you help your neighbor put out the fire when his house goes up. A) It is the right thing to do B) So yours isn't next.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

And, vice versa, Haliburton should be the ones handling the ebola logistics. 


If they in fact aren't.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

And now consider that the democrats WANT us to be weak and feeble like the rest of the world is.


What if something really serious comes up and nobody can do anything about it?

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@IReportYouWhine stop your baseless whining . . .


democrats want us to be weak. what nonsense. we'd prefer you stop wasting resources and treasure fighting other people's battles. we arm the world for a reason . . . y'all seem to think it so their troops can march in parades. not me.

IReportYouWhine
IReportYouWhine

There’s an obvious contrast here with the much smaller number of troops on the ground in Iraq dealing with the most urgent terrorist threat, but the more I think about it the more I doubt that’s the right comparison.


I have no doubt that Iraq is ate up with Haliburton security contractors because that allows obama to keep the true number of troops below the code pinko alert level.


So apples to oranges may in fact be the wrong comparison.

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

Face it. Most Americans want the US to lead rather than let some other nation(s) handle this - or any major world incident for that matter. It's how it's spun here. If the French or some other European nation were leading the way, we'd be hearing about leading from behind. If the African nations were handling it, we'd be talking about incompetence. 


International organizations are what the major powers make of them. 


And they make them rubber stamps or road blocks. 


Rarely do they actually make them useful. 

MHSmith
MHSmith

@consumedconsumer 

About this America must never lead from behind non-sense, let me know when the global march to hell begins - I want to put America squarely at the very very back of the line.


Somethings America shouldn't do at all.

MarkVV
MarkVV

Most of the negative comments I can see can be summarized as a complaint “why do have to do it, why not WHO and other countries?” Which I believe should be answered something like this:

We recognize that Ebola may become national threat TO US, in more than one way. Therefore, it is in our national interest to do what WE CAN DO. Complaining about the WHO or other countries can make some people feel better, but does not accomplish anything.

Aquagirl
Aquagirl

@MarkVV The first step to solving a problem is realizing you have a problem; and it IS a problem that nobody else besides our military seems capable of addressing an epidemic. What happens if there is an epidemic someplace less amenable to US troops? We sit and wait until it reaches our shores? Do we invade and set up hospitals? How about if, god forbid, we go to war again and can't spare so much of our air capacity?


I agree we should do what we can now but we need to start planning for the next emergency, because counting on the US military to be the world's doctor, peacekeeper, leader against terrorism, border guard, and whatever other problem that needs solving---that's not a good thing in the long term.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Aquagirl @MarkVV 


If you want to improve WHO, I have no problem with that. But that should not be taken as an excuse for our country not doing what she can in this situation.


TheRealJDW
TheRealJDW

We do...you don't.

We in this case meaning the majority of Americans.

HeadleyLamar
HeadleyLamar

So far, more than 2,400 people have died this year from Ebola — more than the combined total of all previous outbreaks since the first recorded in 1976 — and the epidemic has spread to five African nations, including Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and Senegal.


Please keep that in mind. If the President did nothing , and the situation became much worse, These same people would be wondering why he didn't do something when he had the opportunity.


Of course the troops aren't going to overnight become doctors. That isn't the mission But the US military is extremely skilled at logistics and moving things from point A to point B.


That is what they will be doing here.


They are a lot better at that than say becoming an occupying force etc.





Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@HeadleyLamar The point is not that the president should do nothing. It's that these other institutions and countries ought to be able to handle something like this before it gets to the point that it threatens our people and interests. (And, of course, theirs.)

TheRealJDW
TheRealJDW

Well shame on them...they should immediately redirect some of thier less than $1000 per capita GDP to handle such things. After all who needs to eat?

AvailableName
AvailableName

I think you are quite right about slacker institutions but "[a]t a time when critical U.S. military attention and resources are required elsewhere, it is disappointing the rest of the world’s resources aren’t able to fulfill this mission" sounds way too much like boots on the ground to me.

Jack_Republican
Jack_Republican

Send troops to fight Ebola? I'm not sure what he's smoking, but it has to be powerful stuff.

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

oops, now I see comments!  (Kyle, you can delete my comment 2 blogs ago).   Not sure why comments and comment area were invisible a few minutes ago.)


I completely agree that the UN/WHO should have the ability and logistics to handle the ebola outbreak. 


It's gotten bad enough that the CDC recognizes a threat to the US if it's not contained.  This would urge government action, and perhaps over-reaction.  But I think the US is preparing for 25,000 - 100,000 cases before containment.   Over-reaction may be required in the short term to prevent even worse consequences later. 

Too bad the UN/WHO could not see this. (or if they did, they may have lost important players to ebola already)

HeadleyLamar
HeadleyLamar

@LogicalDude The 2014-15 budget, approved in May 2013, held steady at about $3.97 billion. That budget also halved funding for handling health crises to $228 million. Moreover, about two-thirds of the WHO's overall budget is earmarked by donors, including the United States, for certain projects, such as anti-Malaria or HIV/AIDS programs. Consequently, a substantial portion of the organization's funds are off-limits for the Ebola effort.


With what funds is the UN/WHO supposed to do all this ?


This reminds me of Benghazi. Cut funds for security at consulates and then complain when there isn't enough security.


Likewise
Likewise

Iraq is not the most urgent terroist threat. But no doubt you cons really screwed things up over there.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

Also missed in a lot of responses today: The lack of participation beyond the WHO's shortcomings.


Let's assume, for a moment, that the WHO can't be expected to have enough medical experts on its staff to handle that part of this. Well, by and large our troops aren't going to West Africa to be medical experts; they're going because of their logistical and engineering expertise. Are we really to believe the U.N. couldn't round up a peacekeeping force to do the same? That other countries that may not be willing to send troops to fight ISIS -- or whatever other mission -- couldn't contribute troops for this?


This is a much broader failure than simply whether the WHO is doing its job (although I stand by my earlier remarks about that).

MHSmith
MHSmith

@Kyle_Wingfield 

Are we really to believe the U.N. couldn't round up a peacekeeping force to do the same? 

EXACTLY! THANK YOU!

iRun
iRun

@Kyle_Wingfield Wait, who's failed?  I don't understand your argument.  You changed the playing field.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@iRun The piece started out referring to "international institutions" broadly, narrowed its focus to the WHO, then broadened it back out toward the end. I'm referring here to the broader picture.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Squirrel_Whisperer If it isn't good for this kind of thing, I'm not sure what it is good for.


If you tell me "nothing," then I just might agree with you.

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@Kyle_Wingfield 


It's not really like we want international institutions to do much is it? Certainly, not things we disagree with. 


The US, like most of the "great" powers, use international institutions when it suits their needs. When it doesn't, they ignore them or use them as the whipping boy.

iRun
iRun

@Kyle_Wingfield @iRun I have to say, from my POV, the response hasn't been out of line. And, yes, I have a fairly experienced POV in this area.  However, in previous Ebola outbreaks they were rather self-contained.  This is mostly due to the economic status of these countries.  But these countries are slowly but surely obtaining more"2nd world" status.  The population sizes, access to technology, access to transportation, and sophistication of medical care are all in a jumble of different levels.  This isn't flu.  Believe you me that this country already has a plan for a real flu pandemic.  They've been planning for years. And it includes a great amount of collaboration between many agencies.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@consumedconsumer "The US, like most of the "great" powers, use international institutions when it suits their needs."


I believe the problem here is the international institutions would suit our needs, but don't seem capable of doing so.

TheRealJDW
TheRealJDW

@Kyle_Wingfield


Now we are back to the question of should we be the world's doctor and policeman...I standby my earlier train...yes, unless we are willing to cede our status as the world's superpower. 

TheRealJDW
TheRealJDW

@Captain-Obvious @TheRealJDW @Kyle_Wingfield


No you don't have that right.


So long as we wish to take on the role of superpower the world will look to us as both policeman and doctor.  I really don't have an issue with that so long as when we take on these projects we don't make the sort of mistakes made by the prior administration in the conduct of Iraq.


Now being the pragmatic sort, I understand that because of the knee jerk isolationist reaction of some in our society coupled with the "Iraq Hangover" we are limited in many cases today to doing less than I would prefer.  


Doesn't mean I wish to do nothing or that I parse such missions based on non-strategic parameters. 


It does mean that those that don't support either this mission or others like it while maintaining that America do more to "project" as a superpower or stem the Russian tide etc... have a fundamental disconnect in their thinking because you can't have one without the other.  

straker
straker

Kyle, when you consider just how poor and crowded these African countries are, exactly HOW do you think anyone can really stop this epidemic?


And what are US troops going to do?


Shoot anyone who looks sick so they won't infect anyone else?

DownInAlbany
DownInAlbany

I'm all in favor of helping combat the Ebola epidemic (?), but, US troops?  Exactly, how are they trained to treat this type of sickness.  That's my only beef. 

MHSmith
MHSmith

@Squirrel_Whisperer @DownInAlbany Our military is on a hand holding mission?


These African countries can control their own people better than we can and as for humanitarian assistance to aid workers, there other organizations that can do that better than our military.

consumedconsumer
consumedconsumer

@DownInAlbany from an earlier ajc piece


"he plan calls for a military command center in Liberia to support civilian work across the region, a staging area in Senegal, and a plan to build treatment units and facilities to train hundreds or thousands of local health workers."

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

I must say, I find it interesting that so many people who think other countries should pull more weight in matters of defense and counterterrorism seem to believe only the U.S. can solve a medical crisis.

iRun
iRun

@Kyle_Wingfield Those people aren't aware that other "1st world countries" actually pull a lot of weight, relatively.  It's just that the US's relative contribution is larger, in absolute numbers.  And perhaps relatively, too.

MHSmith
MHSmith

@Kyle_Wingfield We cannot solve this "medical crisis", Kyle. A major part of this "medical crisis" is one of poor hygiene, lack of modern infrastructure to deal with this kind of pandemic and these African countries inabilities to quarantine the sick, as other industrialized country can and have under these types of medical emergencies.  

Our military is not meant solve "medical crises". These African nations should be able to at least provide their own crowd control. 


We should put no American boots on the ground: Especially at a time of global up evil, when a rapid military response to put American boots on the ground might be necessary.   

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

Wrong question to ask Kyle, of whether to send troops.  The pertinent question is why we still prop up the UN?   Eliminate the US involvement and the UN becomes a cigar smoking lounge, totally useless.  It is pretty much useless with us providing most of the heavy lifting, anyway.  We send the troops, we supply the doctors, we raise the money for the humanitarian efforts, we enforce their resolutions, and we provide the forum for those socialists, communists, dictators and royal potentates,  to stand up there and criticize the things we do and the things we don't do.  Yes, I realize we don't totally finance the UN, other countries contribute, but pull the US out, and it becomes a hollow vessel.


There is a need for a UN like organization, but the one we have is beyond reform or revision, it needs to  come to a League of Nations like conclusion.