There is always a lesson in a crisis if you’re humble enough to look for it. As the Ebola crisis spreads throughout West Africa, both the on-the-ground struggles and the international response have been enlightening, to say the least.
First, the U.S. military is the best in the world at leading and mobilizing resources in response to a humanitarian crisis. The president’s plan to send 3,000 American troops to Liberia and Sierra Leone in order to build hospitals and provide logistics and supplies for on-the-ground relief workers demonstrates a capability of U.S. international power that has rarely been displayed in recent years. Our adventures in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, on the other hand, were seen by many citizens in those nations as primarily self-serving.
The justification for the Iraq War, initially billed as a just war against the tyranny of a brutal dictator, eventually broke down under allegations that the U.S. used torture against the Iraqi people. The seeming justification also stood in stark contrast to the fact that over a million non-combatant Iraqis died in the dirty war that stretched for over a decade. And then there is the geopolitics of oil, which sits in the middle of the room like the 800-pound gorilla everyone is pretending to ignore.
Second, helping other nations recover from natural disasters and plagues helps bolster American power. If you don’t know it already, Africa is the next development frontier. As a continent, Africa’s GDP has sustained over 7 percent growth for the past decade, the fastest real GDP growth of any economic block in the world. This trend is predicted to continue through the middle of the century. As African societies become increasingly wealthy, the U.S. needs to be poised to engage with Africa on a constructive basis. Whereas Europe (because of colonial ties) and Asia (due to rapid trade expansion in recent times) have built a strong presence in African trade and business, the U.S. has been slow to catch up. The U.S. presence in Africa has until now largely centered on food aid, HIV/AIDS relief, famine and other humanitarian issues. We have yet to fully capitalize on the goodwill we have engendered in Africa and the humanitarian infrastructure we have built in various African nations.
Third, a humanitarian crisis overseas is not just something that affects others. The U.S. started out as a nation in “splendid isolation” from the turbulence in Europe and Asia. The Monroe Doctrine attempted to carve the world into discrete little centers of influence, with the Americas being strictly the domain of the U.S. However, World Wars I and II put to rest the belief that America could just swim along, aloof to the problems of the rest of the world.
Today, global interconnectedness is an absolute fact. This latest outbreak of Ebola became real to many of us when American doctors were struck with the disease and had to be evacuated from Africa to U.S. hospitals for treatment. For those of us who are thinking ahead, we understand that medical doctors aren’t the only people who could get on a plane with Ebola and come to the United States. Unless the U.S. is prepared to screen every visitor for Ebola, there is no stopping it from entering the country. And so, in addition to a moral imperative to help our African neighbors, it is in our direct self-interest to stop the disease from spreading further.
Fourth, we need to focus as a country on doing much more in the way of prevention and less in the way of crisis management. Although the U.S. military is plainly the world’s best fighting organization, it is ill suited to deal with thorny political and sectarian issues confronting world nations. To put it in the words of a U.S. fighter pilot in the early days of the Iraq War, the new wars do not really present a target-rich environment.
The mess in Syria and northern Iraq is a case in point. It is almost impossible without actually taking over the place to root out terrorism, petty tyranny and plain old corruption that is plaguing these nations. However, the work that needs to be done is primarily nation-building. That means building robust state institutions of governance and service so that people feel they have a say in how they are governed, in turn increasing the capacity of weakened governments to provide essential goods and services to their people.
The response to the Ebola crisis seems slow, halting and stingy. Contrast this to the coalition that was quickly built in response to the popular uprising in Libya in 2011. The NATO-led international coalition to oust Muammar Gaddafi cost an estimated $7 billion, with the U.S. footing at least $2 billion. The Ebola epidemic has already proven to be the most quickly spreading disease outbreak of its kind in recent history. If the virology were to proceed at its current pace, the disease could kill at least a million people by the end of the year.
To be fair, the rapid spread of the outbreak has caught even the most experienced public health professionals by surprise. But the epidemic was already months in the making before the U.S. decided to commit significant resources. France, which put boots on the ground in Mali when it thought its interests were being threatened by Islamic militants, has been remarkably absent in Guinea, another former colony where Ebola has taken hold.
Fifth, do not romanticize or fetishize the trauma of others. The reaction in the U.S. media has revealed some very curious attitudes about the disease, ranging from grotesque fascination to bemused romanticism about a time when European exploration of the tropics in the late 18th century exposed people to cholera and other tropical viruses. In a story with the headline “The Most Feared People in Liberia,” Time magazine tracked the emergency Red Cross “Body Management Team” as it goes around and collects dead bodies. Along the way, we learn that almost all deaths caused by illness in the country are presumed to be Ebola-related, and in many cases, loved ones are no longer allowed to bury their dead relatives for fear of contracting the virus themselves.
A story that recently appeared in the Washington Post, “Love in the Time of Ebola,” offered a vapid chronicle of the long-distance love affair between two American humanitarian workers whose lives and careers were upset when the organizations they worked for closed up shop and left the disease-ravaged region. We are all a human race. No one is safe, regardless of your wealth, education or nationality. If the ship goes down, you’re going down with it. We should have learned that from the Titanic.
We are a human race. The notion that nationality, race, religion and ethnicity should be real divisions stands in stark contrast to the reality of the global challenges we are facing. There is value in the principle of helping thy neighbor exist, not just for your neighbor’s sake but for your own. A healthy neighbor is often the only thing standing between us and certain disaster.