Whether intentional or not, President Barack Obama sent an unmistakable message Tuesday: I may not be prepared to put boots on the ground to stop the Islamic State, but I will to stop the Ebola outbreak.
While sending 3,000 troops to Liberia to help with logistics shows that the U.S. is finally getting serious about the Ebola epidemic, the other assistance that Obama announced will likely have more impact.
Building 17 badly needed 100-bed clinics, airlifting 50,000 home health kits, training health care workers on how to safely provide care to Ebola victims and deploying personnel to staff a hospital that will treat infected doctors and nurses – this is the kind of help that the World Health Organization has been urgently calling for countries to provide.
“We’re prepared to take leadership on this,” the president said at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. Indeed, the steps he described as the largest U.S. medical mission ever will strengthen America’s hand at an emergency meeting Thursday of the United Nations Security Council when it asks for other nations to step up as well.
Time is of the essence for this ramped-up response. The death toll in West Africa is already estimated at more than 2,400 and the number of cases at nearly 5,000, and both the numbers have doubled in two weeks. The World Health Organization warned again Tuesday that the outbreak is not contained and could get much worse, and that the local health systems are on the brink of collapse.
Obama said that if the epidemic spirals out of control, those countries could descend into chaos, destabilizing that entire part of the world. Fortunately, he asserted, “The world knows how to fight this disease.”
Unfortunately, the same can’t really be said about how to combat terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
The president – who flew from his Ebola announcement to the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, which is overseeing the fight against that terrorist group and where he is to receive a briefing Wednesday – has repeatedly made clear that he has no intention of sending ground troops. Instead, he unveiled a plan last week that calls for airstrikes and helping Iraqi and Syrian rebels.
Obama is wise to be cautious about reintroducing forces into Iraq, where nearly 4,500 American soldiers died but where Islamic State has quickly gained support and territory, or about putting them into the middle of the civil war in Syria.
He is right to resist the hawks in Congress, who did their best Tuesday to push Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to say that ground troops might – might – eventually become necessary if the president’s plan fails.
As Obama knows, the rise of the Islamic State is part of a far bigger, more complex and centuries-old struggle between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and defeating it will require the intervention of Arab states, some of which have been funding the group.
While the Islamic State may pose the bigger immediate danger to U.S. security, there’s no doubt that the Ebola virus is also a significant threat to global stability.