U.S. Troops are Unrivaled in Carrying out Humanitarian Missions

COMMENTARY Global Politics

U.S. Troops are Unrivaled in Carrying out Humanitarian Missions

Nov 4th, 2014 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.
Obama called it a "national security" mission - a clear misuse of the term. Americans should be wary of Washington's growing tendency to make every project a priority simply by appending "security" to the issue.

National security efforts by design are statist, centralized, top-down activities. So when government says it wants to focus on climate security, energy security, food security, or any other pet project - what it is really saying is government plans to step in and take over.

For most of life's challenges and hazards - even those where we might want government to take some action - we certainly don't want Washington to take over.

True "national security" issues arise due to bad, human-controlled actors - whether states or al-Qaida - that threaten the violent destruction of assets or interests vital to the United States. Other types of challenges - be they bad bugs or bad weather - are just problems to be solved.

The challenge of keeping Ebola from becoming a global problem is not principally a security problem. Helping West Africa deal with Ebola is a humanitarian mission - not a national security deployment.

It is, of course, wholly appropriate for the U.S. to provide humanitarian assistance when we have the means to do so and it does not conflict with America's interest.

America's humanitarian response to the 2004 Tsunami in the Asia-Pacific dwarfed the assistance provide by most countries.

Further, the U.S. military undertakes these kinds of missions quite frequently, both at home and abroad. Be it sandbagging during storms or delivering supplies and rescue services after disaster strikes, our military is skilled at alleviating non-military emergencies. It is not the principal job for our armed forces, but these are appropriate auxiliary missions - tasks to be done on an as-needed and as-available basis.

The right measure of these missions is whether or not they are suitable, feasible and acceptable.

Without question, the West African crisis is a suitable use of U.S. forces. The Pentagon can quickly deploy expertise, support and infrastructure that will help local organizations stop the spread of the disease.

And there's self-interest here as well. The best way to keep more Ebola cases from checking in at the nearest Holiday Inn is to help quell the outbreak at its source. Alternative containment strategies - like banning travel and yanking visas - are much blunter instruments.

The West African deployment also passes the "feasible" and "acceptable" tests. This is not to say the mission poses zero risks to our troops.

Even medical professionals who presumably try to take all the right precautions have caught the disease. But, our troops are disciplined, and they should know the right risk-mitigation measures to take.

They are also brave, courageous and willing volunteers. They understand there is danger going in harm's way. That is part of the job.

Rather than just invoking the name of "national security" and moving on, the White House should have classified the initiative correctly - as a humanitarian mission - and explained the rationale for this auxiliary mission to the American people.

Instead all they got was a banal declaration and a ludicrous promise that Ebola would never appear on U.S. shores.

Words are important, and so are actions. Mislabeling missions, as Obama did earlier in calling our offensive against the Islamic State a "humanitarian" mission, suggests a dangerous confusion about the nature of true national security risks and the principle function of our military.

It also raises concern about the conduct of this mission. Has the White House organized operations efficiently and sent enough assets to West Africa? Or is the president simply throwing some troops at the problem so he can say he's done something?

 - James Jay Carafano is vice president of Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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