Six years into his presidency, Barack Obama has finally found a mission for his military. It’s not in Afghanistan, fighting the unrepentant Taliban; nor is it in Iraq, where the steampunk fundamentalists of ISIS are cutting off American heads. No, it’s in the cape of West Africa, fighting the profoundly un-military Ebola outbreak.
Ebola is a horrifying virus. The victim vomits, spreading the disease as the virus liquefies the organs until it essentially drowns the victim in his own blood. It has already killed 3,439 people, according to the World Health Organization, the most deadly Ebola outbreak in recorded history. The first US case was reported last week in Dallas, and up to a hundred Americans could have been exposed before the carrier was diagnosed.
Clearly, this is a serious medical problem. But it is absolutely not clear it’s a military one – in fact, it’s baffling Obama thought it was a problem with a military solution. One of the most holy tenets of the Administration’s seminar-based foreign policy is that there are no military solutions. There’s no military solution to Hamas rockets from Gaza. There’s no military solution to Vlad Putin’s military solution in Ukraine, even though most non-Russian participants want one.
Only a political solution can fix the Syrian civil war, even though Bashar Assad’s been dropping barrels of toxic political solution on his population for the past three years. The good war in Afghanistan had so few military solutions that when Obama sent in the troops he also told them when the good war would turn bad. And there’s absolutely no military solution to Iraq, despite the Kurdish, Iraqi, Iranian, and Turkish insistence that there is.
Many – if not most – of the other participants in these crises would agree. But even before Obama took power, the Administration had made the classic Washington mistake of taking the pundits seriously. Decrying the lack of a military solution became one of the clever, semi-counterinsurgency things to say after the Iraq war became stuck in about early 2004.
By implication, a thinking person would hardly try to win the war. A non-military solution seems to require more skill, sophistication and precision than teenagers killing people with machine guns, which is at the core of most military solutions.
Running a close second to “no military solution” was the idea of a “civilian surge,” which really took off after the success of President Bush’s military surge in Iraq. The civilian surge had many of the same advantages as “no military solutions,” like the conceit that battles could be better won by nuanced diplomats than by jauntily painted A-10 Warthogs.
It predictably caught fire – Obama mentioned it in his speech announcing the Afghan surge – and just as predictably, fell on its face. Not enough civilians signed up, for one thing. They couldn’t go outside without significant military protection. And at the end of the day, most of contemporary Afghan history has been made by teenagers with machine guns.
The truly staggering thing about these two policy tenets is that the only time when they would clearly, without question seem to apply is to a contagious disease outbreak in Africa. Yet this famously un-military, civilian-surging Administration has decided that the best way to help fight Ebola is to deploy up to 4,000 soldiers into the thick of it.
Most of those troops will be sent to Liberia, to build seventeen 100-bed hospitals, a special treatment center for health care workers, and provide general but under-specified support to USAID. They will not, the Pentagon says, provide direct care to the infected patients.
Without question, there’s sort of a chthonic horror of Americans being deployed into a plague that’s eating its way through the remote cities of the Third World. It’s part King Solomon’s Mines and part World War Z, with heavily-armed soldiers picking their way through a deserted city amidst plumes of green smoke. As Rand Paul said on Wednesday, there’s some concern that Ebola aboard a troopship could be devastating.
“Obama sends 3,000 troops to catch Ebola,” shouted a satirical headline from the Duffel Blog, but that’s not really the problem. Liberia is far from a Mad Max wasteland, and the US military is probably process-driven (if not process-maniac) enough to ensure sufficient sterilization routines.
No, what’s alarming is that the President thinks THIS crisis – this urgent doctors-nurses-and-scientists-needed crisis – is the crisis with a military solution. What kind of worldview does that indicate? For those of you keeping score, we’re sending more than twice the amount of troops to fight (loosely speaking) Ebola than to fight ISIS. And you’ll note there’s no withdrawal date.
Which begs the question: why is the Administration sending soldiers? If the troops are intended to build hospitals and coordinate, surely civilians could do the job. Maybe the State Department? USAID? Even the Department of Agriculture’s foreign affairs wing could seem to handle this.
I’d be willing to bet the time it takes for Kellogg, Brown, and Root to build 10 hospitals blows away anything the U.S. military can manage. There is literally no good reason the military has to be involved in this project: at long, long last, there is truly no military solution. So why?
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