Off to battle


Minnesota National Guard members heading to Liberia (link)

Why?  Why is the US sending US troops to this area?  Why are we spending 6.8 Billion US dollars in this area?  Where is the UN? Where is the WHO?  Why?  Did our Senators Al and Amy volunteer our MN National Guard members for this duty?  Exposing MN citizens to Ebola?  Why?  Why?

–comment on the linked article

Taking a break from transgender navel contemplation, I am going to attempt to answer this question and address the most frequently stated objections, from the silly to the merely skeptical, to military intervention in the Ebola crisis.

The first part of this response is easily stated:  deployment of military troops to West Africa is justified by a) a credible threat to national security and geopolitical stability, b) a moral imperative for action, and c) a reasonable expectation that military deployment will positively impact the situation.  Now for the objections:

1.  This is not our problem.  From a here-and-now standpoint, there is an element of truth to this.  There are no active cases of Ebola in the United States, as of today, given the tragic death of Dr. Martin Salia in Nebraska.  That said, the current outbreak of Ebola is by far the largest on record, and the risk of significant spread to the US remains high until it is extinguished.  The more Ebola spreads in parts distant, the more potential avenues it has to enter the US.

Further, we have been thoroughly burned before by inconsistent application of moral principle in international affairs.  We justified the first Gulf War in 1991 by framing it as an international response to “naked aggression that will not stand”, yet turned a blind eye to even greater aggression in the subsequent Rwandan genocide.  While the US certainly cannot intervene in every humanitarian crisis, we have a nearly undeniable habit of invoking the language of humanitarian crisis disproportionately in regions where we have economic interest.

2.  We can keep this out by blocking all inbound traffic from West Africa.  This is not even true at the moment and will be less true in the future.  Thomas Eric Duncan entered the United States through Belgium.  Clearly, merely stopping direct traffic from West Africa will not suffice.  What lies just beneath the surface in this argument is the idea that West Africans themselves should not travel.  Even if we put aside the moral difficulty with imposing restrictions on others that we would not likely accept on ourselves (i.e. if Ebola were ravaging Minneapolis, the number of Minnesotans who opted to get out of town for awhile would not be insignificant), the idea that we can keep Ebola out of our neighborhood by building a metaphorical fence around such a large piece of territory as Africa is far-fetched.

Ebola has now spread to Mali.  How did it get there?  It walked over the border.  The instinct to want to contain Ebola isn’t wrong.  It simply ignores the eventuality that unchecked disease will continue to move out in a widening circle which will become increasingly hard to isolate.  How much will it matter that we stop flights from Africa if disease clusters break out in India, China, or Europe?  Containment is only likely if it is aggressive, active and local in the areas of outbreak.

3.  Deployment of troops places them in harm’s way.  This one falls apart as quickly as it is articulated.  Going into harms way for the good of national security is what troops do.  The Star Tribune article plays shamefully on this idea by attaching a photo of Guardsmen looking concerned and bewildered, inviting the inference that they are particularly disturbed about being sent to Liberia.  It is actually a file photo from 2008 taken upon news of deployment to Iraq.

I suppose one could argue that Ebola poses no threat to national security, but this argument is generally being advanced by the same people calling for closing the borders with an entire continent.  Is it a threat, or isn’t it?

4.  There is not a military matter.  Part of this objection rests on the implication that the troops are being sent to directly treat patients.  This is not the case.  Most if not all of the Guardsmen being sent have no training in this.  However, they do have expertise in security and logistical support.  These are skills which can productively be brought to bear in efforts to contain the movement of infected persons.

Additionally, stating what I think to be obvious, Ebola has immense potential to be used as a weapon of terror.  If religious fundamentalists are able to persuade volunteers to strap explosives to themselves and walk into a public market, how difficult will it be for them to persuade volunteers to deliberately contract Ebola, then walk around shaking intentionally soiled hands with as many people as possible in various densely populated cities?  It is definitely within US strategic interests to exercise military control the areas of outbreak.

5.  The CDC and WHO don’t know what they are doing.  I think a case can be made that they haven’t been particularly good at effectively communicating what they are doing in the face of a muck raking press.  Still, while there has been some evolution in their guidance and field response, active monitoring of persons at risk generally works.  Dr. Craig Spencer (NY Ebola case) is exhibit A.  Despite hysteria about the risks to New Yorkers brought on by his movements prior to developing symptoms, there were no secondary cases.  Meanwhile, quarantine hawks such as Governors Cuomo and Christie have potentially done significant damage to efforts to combat Ebola in Africa by advocating scientifically unfounded extra restrictions on aid workers that will likely lead to decreased volunteerism.

6.  We can’t afford this.  Although I fully expect the price tag to inflate, the $7 billion or so that we currently have earmarked for the Ebola is  outbreak less than 0.2% of the cost of our military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I think most reasonable people will now agree that these wars were an abject failure, apparently accomplishing little more than fanning the flame of Islamist extremism.  It remains to be seen whether the Ebola outbreak will prove to be an instance where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but the likely cost of an epidemic 10 or 100 times greater than current levels would be staggering indeed.

7.  Why the National Guard?  This is not a completely unreasonable question, but again, the full-time military has been more than a little busy lately.  I recently reflected on the fact that we have constantly been at war since my son was three.  He will test for his driver’s license next week.

8. Obama wants to bring Ebola here.  I hate to even bring this up, except that this sort of ridiculous thinking seems pop up with extraordinary frequency.  All Presidents have historically been criticized and simplified.  Carter was a wimp.  Reagan was a dotard.  Bush I was a waffler.  Clinton was too busy schtupping interns to take care of business, Bush II was a bumbler.  Getting splattered with poo goes with the job.  That said, the incessant characterizations of Obama as un-American or even anti-American are unprecedented.  Personally, I think he’s had a C+ presidency at best and has opened himself up to many legitimate gripes, but those who cast him as someone who hates his country locate themselves far beyond the grasp of reason.

We are more than one year into the current Ebola outbreak.  We now know that we were too sluggish to respond, assuming this outbreak would, like preceding outbreaks, rapidly die out on its own.  So far, it shows no signs of doing so, and there are reasons to be concerned that it is still accelerating.  I predict that no effort we have made thus far, including the coming military deployment will be regretted in the long term.  I only hope we are doing enough.

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