When Steve was hosting a show on NPR this week, several callers questioned whether the United States should be sending 3,000 troops and $500 million to help control the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa.
It’s true that Washington is 4,669 miles from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where the epidemic is centered. It’s also true that the resources sent to Africa could be used here at home to improve the health of underserved Americans.
Still, President Obama made the right call. If anything, his response to the crisis has been too slow. As he said in Atlanta this week, “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.”
Defining where and when American interests are engaged in a foreign crisis is not always easy. Even the most hawkish voices on Capitol Hill don’t think we can be “the world’s policeman.” Nor can we solve every medical or humanitarian problem.
President Bush 41 was justified in sending troops to the Middle East in 1991 to reverse Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. The Iraqi dictator had crossed a clear international boundary, and virtually every nation had a common interest in rolling back his challenge to the established world order.
President Bush 43 invaded Iraq 12 years later, alleging that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. His justification – and reputation – collapsed after those weapons were never found. Voters then elected a president who called the invasion a “dumb war.”
But Ebola is not WMD. It’s not a myth or a guess. It’s killing people every day. It threatens our well-being and demands a rapid response.
One of our motives is simply moral. With all its flaws, America is a good nation, a charitable nation, and when it comes to crises like Ebola, it is also – in Madeleine Albright’s phrase – an “indispensable nation.”
Only the U.S. has the ability to transport and maintain the 1,700-bed clinics the president is sending to Liberia. Or supply home health care kits to hundreds of thousands of households. Or train 500 health workers a week.
And that’s what’s needed. This epidemic is far more serious than any previous outbreak of the virus. It’s moved from rural to urban areas and breached international borders.
“Our concern,” an administration official told reporters, “is if we do not arrest that growth, and don’t arrest that growth now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of cases.”
America’s interest in halting the epidemic goes far beyond morality. Ebola is already causing food shortages, paralyzing transportation networks and undermining economies. Chaos could spread. Governments could topple. And vast areas of Africa could plunge into lawlessness and become breeding grounds for terrorists.
As the president put it, “It’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies beak down, if people panic.”
Again, this is not a guess, a fantasy cooked up in Washington. This sort of breakdown has already happened in places like Somalia, Yemen and western Iraq. And bad guys who would threaten global security are already using them as safe havens.
Then there’s the potential threat from the virus itself, which kills more than half the people it infects and has no medical cure. Officials insist that right now, Americans are in no danger, but two other things are true. First: Viruses don’t stop at borders (nor do airplanes and their passengers). And second: They have the ability to change and mutate.
Ebola today can only be transmitted through bodily fluids, like blood and sweat, which makes it relatively easy to contain with the right knowledge and equipment. The nightmare is an airborne virus that can spread as easily as influenza. If that ever happens, the president said on “Meet the Press,” then “it could be a serious danger to the United States.”
There’s a rough parallel here to the justification for battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Those brutal jihadists, like the Ebola virus, could destabilize our friends and allies and cause the sort of “breakdown” in civil order Obama’s talking about.
And their fighters, trained and inspired in those lawless areas but carrying Western passports, could evade our antiterrorist systems and threaten the homeland.
One enemy carries bombs, and the other germs. But they are both mutations in their way: malign in their mission and hard to eradicate. And both threaten our vital national interests.
Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.