Ebola crisis: why Obama is involving the US

President Obama is deploying 3,000 military personnel to West Africa to help tackle the Ebola outbreak – and it’s not only a matter of humanitarian duty and reaching hearts and minds.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama speaks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. Obama traveled to the CDC, to address the Ebola crisis and announced that he is sending 3,000 American troops to West Africa nations fight the spread of the Ebola epidemic.

President Obama’s deployment of 3,000 military personnel to West Africa to help tackle the Ebola outbreak fits in a growing pattern in recent years of using the military to address the world’s humanitarian catastrophes.

The military has been called on to establish an American bridgehead for broader and deeper US and international intervention in crises around the globe including: Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and last year’s typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

But Mr. Obama’s plan – to establish treatment centers and training centers capable of turning out 500 local health-care workers and other responders a week, a state-of-the-art hospital for health workers exposed to the Ebola virus, and educational programs on hygiene – is not just a matter of humanitarian duty and reaching hearts and minds.

Obama is calling the most devastating outbreak of Ebola ever a “national security priority” for a reason.

Left unaddressed, this outbreak in densely populated urban areas of the three countries most affected – Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea – has the potential to overwhelm governments and reduce economic activity in already-fragile countries, says Rajiv Shah, the administrator for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) who accompanied the president to Atlanta Tuesday afternoon for his announcement about the US Ebola response.

“It’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down,” Obama said in announcing his plan. “If the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people affected, with profound economic, political, and security implications for all of us.” The outbreak has left more than 2,500 people dead and a caseload of 5,000, according to the World Health Organization.

The Obama plan for West Africa is not so much nation building as what might be called nation preservation – in a region that has become a growing preoccupation for the White House in recent years.

Obama has steadily increased US security interests in Africa – especially as Islamist extremists have risen in North and central Africa – to the point that some regional analysts have spoken of an “Africa pivot” in US military priorities.

But that is not to say that a “pivot” has been limited to a military dimension. Last month, the president held the largest-ever summit of African leaders in Washington, with a focus on such issues as economic development, the strengthening and expanding of US business ties to Africa, good governance, and efforts to reduce animal poaching and trafficking.

Indeed, if Obama is taking steps to galvanize a global effort, it is only partly because the White House sees the worrisome potential of the outbreak setting back the most heavily affected countries. The concern is that the blow of a health catastrophe in one region of Africa could also reverse the economic and social gains realized across much of Africa in recent years, as well as a hard-won improvement in Africa’s global image.

Part of the purpose of Obama’s Africa summit was to introduce Americans to a new, more prosperous, and more stable Africa. The Ebola crisis risks erasing the progress in Africa’s image, however – especially since, for many experts, the outbreak is the result not of a new and more frightening Ebola, but of a “new” Africa.

“The Ebola virus hasn’t changed; Africa has changed,” Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, wrote in an Aug. 1 opinion piece in The Washington Post. Earlier outbreaks occurred in rural, sparsely populated areas and were more easily confined and controlled, he said. This outbreak is the first in the “new” Africa of rapid urbanization and expanded ease of transportation, but involving populations that have largely retained “old” hygienic habits and customs.

Obama’s plan for the military to lead America’s anti-Ebola effort can be seen as a humanitarian intervention with a dose of self-interest sprinkled in.

It’s a template that was used in Pakistan, where the US military intervened after a 2005 earthquake in Kashmir to rescue and save earthquake victims. The mission had a secondary objective, however, which was to win over the hearts and minds of Pakistanis widely opposed to the US counterterrorism campaign in their country. Improved US standing was seen as a way to potentially widen the US field of operation in the battle against Al Qaeda.

The same dual-purpose approach was in operation in the Philippines last year after typhoon Haiyan. When the US Navy steamed in, the immediate goal was search and rescue, followed by recovery assistance. But the intervention allowed the United States to demonstrate what Obama’s “Asia pivot” and a more strategic US presence in the Pacific region could mean for people.

In discussing Obama’s plan to fight Ebola, White House officials have emphasized the humanitarian aspects of the US intervention and the moral obligation of world powers to help in such a crisis. “The United States has unique capabilities in a wide range of areas,” Obama spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday. “And that means the US has a unique responsibility to step up in the midst of an international crisis.”

Which is not to say that the US doesn’t have other motives when it initiates this kind of humanitarian intervention. The post-Haiyan intervention no doubt served another purpose the US did not object to: It soothed the jitters of some Filipinos worried about a growing US security relationship with their country.

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