Contrary to what seemed certain as the week began, American military boots will soon be on the ground to combat a societal scourge on the other side of the world. And virtually no one in Congress sounds opposed to the idea.
That’s because President Barack Obama’s expanding global assertiveness, with congressional buy-in viewed as totally welcome but rarely required, inserted the country into another international crisis Tuesday. He said he would send 3,000 members of the armed forces to West Africa to provide medical and logistical support to local officials overwhelmed by the quickening spread of the deadly Ebola virus. He’ll also be taking $500 million out of the Pentagon fund for the longstanding war-fighting efforts and using it to open 17 treatment centers in the region.
“Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before,” the president declared. “It’s spiraling out of control, it is getting worse. It’s spreading faster, and exponentially.”
The new deployment will be six times larger than the number of additional military advisers Obama announced last week that he was dispatching to help contain ISIS in Iraq. And the amount he’s spending to erect those field hospitals is the same as what it’s going to cost for the U.S. military to train and arm Syrian rebels so they can confront that militant extremist group’s rise in their country.
Notwithstanding those comparisons, there was only a small amount of discussion about the newest military surge Tuesday on Capitol Hill — especially when compared to the intensifying debate about Obama’s efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
One of the reasons for that is obvious: Members of Congress generally feel both a moral and a political imperative to take some sort of formal position before their uniformed constituents are sent on new as well as dangerous missions. That’s why there was no way the House and Senate would recess for the midterm campaign without at least voting on an authorization for the drilling-and-equipping effort.
In contrast, the medics, engineers and logistical support troops being dispatched by the end of the month to combat Ebola should be able to stay out of harm’s way. (They will be given all the protective gear and training they need to avoid becoming infected with the virus — which means avoiding direct contact with the bodily fluids of people already visibly sick.)
But, in other ways, the threats to Americans from ISIS and Ebola are comparable. Both the militants and the epidemic are rapidly spreading halfway around the word. While neither phenomena has yet tarnished U.S. soil, each holds potential to create transformational chaos closer to home soon enough. The administration has expressed concern not only about the capabilities of ISIS for domestic terrorist attacks, but also about the potential for Ebola to spread worldwide and mutate into a more easily transmitted disease.
There’s also the argument that Ebola’s accelerating spread in Africa is becoming a topflight national security threat, because the threat to the fragile governments and economies of the continent could open safe havens for incubating new terrorist groups.
For all those reasons, there was widespread bipartisan support for Obama’s latest plan, and not a single audible call for the president to seek congressional permission before reprogramming the Pentagon’s “overseas contingency operations budget” for the humanitarian deployment. A potential argument against the maneuver is that it will divert an already stretched-thin force from other important missions.
“Faced with this outbreak, the world is looking to us,” Obama said in Atlanta, where he announced his initiative at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s a responsibility that we embrace. We’re prepared to take leadership on this, to provide the kind of capabilities that only America has.”
The government has spent more than $100 million this fiscal year looking for the first reliable Ebola treatments and vaccines. The continuing resolution Congress plans to enact in coming days , which would generally fund government programs at current levels for the first 10 weeks of the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, already includes the extra $88 million the president asked for to support CDC researchers on the ground in Africa and speed the development of whatever drugs they think might work.
“We must take the dangerous, deadly threat of the Ebola epidemic as seriously as we take the threat of ISIS,” Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said at an afternoon hearing focused on where federal spending against the epidemic needs to be focused next.
Sen. Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee overseeing Africa, hailed Obama for directing a “humanitarian intervention [that] should serve as a firewall against a global security crisis that has the potential to reach American soil.”
The most prominent discordant note came from Speaker John A. Boehner. The Ohio Republican, who has led his party’s chorus of criticism about Obama’s bypassing of Congress, wondered aloud what took the president so long this time to exercise his executive powers “to address what is a serious threat, not just to Africa but to others across the world.”
The virus has killed more than 2,400 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal this year, about half of all those infected, and Obama said the infected roster could “rapidly grow to tens of thousands” if the spread of the virus is not curbed quickly.
All four known American victims contracted the disease in Africa and have been treated in the United States. One of them, Dr. Kent Brantly, who was volunteering in Liberia, was well enough Tuesday to appear at the Senate hearing. In a sense, he represents the part of the solution to the epidemic that Obama cannot address by executive order and Congress cannot address with legislation. The World Health Organization estimates that 760 volunteer physicians from elsewhere in the world will need to be in West Africa at all times in the next six months if Ebola’s spread is to end.
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