If the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind, then even the possibility of infection with Ebola should do the same — for all of us. Instead we seem easily distracted by attempts to blame President Obama and scapegoat the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Republican politicians and media loudmouths demand the resignation of Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC director, evidently because he refused to endorse a West African travel ban.
They’re all dead wrong.
First, Obama is following precisely the correct approach in addressing the outbreak with his order to dispatch American troops to Liberia. At this stage, no force except the U.S. military is capable of getting the situation in West Africa under control. The men and women of the medical corps can swiftly set up emergency tented facilities in every Liberian county, while security personnel begin to restore order and prevent panicked destruction.
The president didn’t foresee this outbreak, but neither did anyone else, principally because every earlier Ebola outbreak had been contained within a few rural villages. While his order to send troops isn’t popular – and nobody likes the idea of sending our troops into danger – he made a difficult but wise choice. (Our British and French allies have agreed to do the same in Sierra Leone and Guinea, respectively.)
Why are the unique characteristics and large scale of the U.S. military so vital now? Simply because no other force can adequately handle the logistical and safety requirements of this chaotic, perilous undertaking. To take just one example: Both our troops and the local health care workers will need an enormous supply of protective gear known as Personal Protective Equipment – each of which must be not just discarded, but carefully destroyed after a single use.
More broadly, the effort to contain Ebola needs very well-trained, well-organized, and well-disciplined people on the ground – which is to say, an army. Our military personnel are the best in the world, and will be able to provide leadership and guidance to the Liberians, organizing local health workers to restore order amid chaos and fear.
No organization except the U.S. military possesses the capacity to deal with such problems.
Second, the calls for Dr. Frieden to resign by Republican members of Congress more resemble cheap midterm campaigning than intelligent policymaking. Although the CDC has not functioned perfectly in the current crisis, its director is certainly the most qualified and experienced figure to stem a threatened outbreak of infectious disease. His expertise is not merely on paper, either.
During four of the worst years of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York, when multi-drug resistant tuberculosis was taking a terrible toll, Dr. Frieden oversaw the program that eventually controlled TB and reduced cases by 80 pecent. For five years he worked in India, dispatched by the CDC to work with the World Health Organization to control TB in that country – where his efforts helped to provide treatment for at least 10 million patients and saved as many as 3 million lives. Those are among the reasons that President Obama appointed him in the first place – and why he still deserves far more confidence than the partisan screamers in Congress and on cable television now attacking him.
Now is the wrong time for politicians and pundits to harass the Pentagon and the CDC, as they address the difficult task at hand — which will require many weeks of intensive struggle. There will be plenty of opportunity for recriminations later, if that still seems necessary.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the country faced what felt like an existential crisis, many public figures, especially Republicans, urged everyone to put national unity and cooperation ahead of partisan bickering. It would be good if, just this once, they would follow their own advice.
What we will need in the months to come is a fresh assessment of our foreign aid programs. We need to understand why our traditional stinginess does both our country and our children a terrible disservice. Our best hope for survival, in the long term, is to notice how small our world has become – and to recognize that protecting our fellow human beings everywhere is the only way to protect ourselves.