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.