If there is to be war, the fight against Ebola is President Obama’s type of war. The enemy fires no bullets and carries no bombs; it doesn’t use social media to recruit fighters and rally supporters. And the fighting can best be done by intelligent professionals who don’t try to kill people, but to save them.
On Wednesday, Obama celebrated the progress against the deadly virus since the administration launched a military and civilian effort in September. While the president emphasized it was too soon to declare “mission accomplished” — as President George W. Bush did about Iraq in 2003 — Obama said “we’re shifting our focus from fighting the epidemic to now extinguishing it.”
“Last summer, as Ebola spread in West Africa, overwhelming public health systems and threatening to cross more borders, I said that fighting this disease had to be more than a national security priority, but an example of American leadership,” Obama told an audience at the White House’s South Court Auditorium as a group of military, civilian and health professionals stood behind him. “We have risen to the challenge.”
Wednesday’s event provided fresh evidence of how the White House has elevated non-conventional threats — including pandemics and climate change — to the top of its national security agenda, while de-emphasizing more traditional threats. In an interview the Web site Vox posted this week, Obama said the media “absolutely” overstates the threat of terrorism compared to long-term problems such as global warming and disease that cross national borders.
But even as Obama plays down more conventional foreign policy issues, they keep yanking the agenda back. Chaos in Yemen, fighting in Ukraine, the battle against the Islamic State, the persistent strength of the Taliban and the nuclear weapons potential in Iran all remain pressing, often taking precedence over longer-term challenges.
“He thinks that these other [geopolitical] crises are manageable and not existential and should be placed into context,” said Thomas Wright, director of a project on international order and strategy at the Brookings Institution. “I think they’re more serious than that. They do rise to challenging the international order as a whole.”
One retired four-star general, who asked for anonymity in order to speak frankly about the administration, said Obama’s worldview has undermined the military’s ability to rein in chaos in places like Yemen and Afghanistan.
“We are always shooting behind the duck. You see that with Iran, Putin and Syria,” the general said. “We reintroduced forces to Iraq but nowhere near enough to be decisive. Obama sent more troops to fight Ebola than the Islamic State.”
As of Feb. 9, the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq was 2,630, a number that under a White House plan is expected to rise to nearly 3,000. There were 2,800 troops serving in West Africa at one point, though the number has dropped to 1,300 and will be cut to 100 by the end of April.
Obama on Wednesday praised the Ebola fight as a model for modern warfare. “This was a wake-up call,” he said. “In the 21st century, we cannot build moats around our countries. There are no drawbridges to be pulled up. We shouldn’t try.” Instead, he said, this challenge called for better laboratories and hospitals — things a good community organizer might seek.
But for the United States, humanitarian intervention isn’t simply a 21st-century phenomenon. In 1992, in an operation dubbed Restore Hope, President George H.W. Bush sent 10 times as many troops to deliver food aid to Somalia as Obama sent to West Africa. But that foray ended with American troops getting sucked into the country’s sectarian battles and beating a retreat in 1994.
In their short mission in West Africa, U.S. troops have been able to avoid that, and the president and his aides have been able to hail them not only for reflecting American values but for serving the nation’s core interests. “This is not charity,” he said. “These investments we make overseas are in our self-interest.”
Describing health-care worker Brett Sedgewick, who volunteered with a nonprofit organization to train safe burial teams in Liberia, Obama said, “That’s who we are — big-hearted and optimistic, reflecting the can-do spirit of the American people. . . . These values — American values — matter to the world.”
But sometimes big-heartedness is not enough. Unlike the recent fight against Ebola, other instances of humanitarian intervention get tangled up in conventional conflicts.
Nearly four years ago, the president used both frameworks — humanitarian and national interests — to explained to the American people that he had authorized bombing raids against Libya to prevent then-leader Moammar Gaddafi from committing a massacre in Benghazi. Obama said such a massacre “would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”
“It was not in our national interest to let that happen,” the president said in a prime-time address. “I refused to let that happen.” Yet the president did not choose to intervene with troops. And while the U.S. bombing raids helped prevent a tragedy in Benghazi, ever since Gaddafi’s fall, factional fighting has plagued the country.
Obama also invoked humanitarian concerns when he authorized strikes last summer to aid the Yazidis trapped by the Islamic State in northern Iraq.
But even when it comes to transnational challenges like disease and climate change, military involvement cannot separate itself from traditional issues about geopolitics.
“I do think that in a sense he’s right. Our national security is affected by things other than geopolitics,” said James Dobbins, a senior fellow at Rand Corp. and veteran diplomat. But, he said, clearly the biggest threats continue to come from states rather than non-states. Moreover, Dobbins added, “you’re not going to solve climate change, or terrorism, or endemic disease without state action.”
In the case of Ebola, at least, Obama’s strategy appears to be paying some dividends.
Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that the world has learned that “we’re going to have to move really quickly” to tamp down epidemics. And it has even learned from U.S. mistakes, such as building expensive medical units that were ultimately not needed in Liberia.
“It’s crystal-clear that the U.S. made a huge difference in the Ebola response,” Inglesby said. America not only mobilized forces on the ground, Inglesby said, but spurred nations such as Britain and France to ramp up their efforts. “You saw other countries started to do more things in short order after the U.S. started,” he said.
Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.