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The rank injustice of sending U.S. troops to battle Ebola

| Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
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WASHINGTON

President Barack Obama is using American troops to combat Ebola to show the world he cares enough to send our very best. But our soldiers aren't Hallmark greeting cards.

Like many of Obama's foreign policy initiatives, his Ebola plan has a ready-shoot-aim quality to it.

Here are four reasons why our military isn't the best vehicle for rendering assistance:

Our military already is overextended. The president has decided to cut the Army from its wartime high of 570,000 soldiers to 440,000. The administration's Quadrennial Defense Review said this “strains our ability to simultaneously respond to more than one major contingency at a time.”

That assessment came before the president announced plans to send 4,000 soldiers to West Africa, a number sure to grow given the president's recent authorization of a National Guard call-up. It was also before military operations were launched against ISIS, a campaign that may ultimately require ground forces.

In light of these developments, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno recently questioned the wisdom of continuing with the force reduction plan.

Military intervention in West Africa risks a quagmire. Though the media have focused on the military's humanitarian role in the Ebola crisis, it would also likely have a security one.

As the Council on Foreign Relations' Janine Davidson noted, “As the disease spreads, so does panic — and panic leads to violence.” Maintaining order will pose serious risks.

For one, it would require a significantly greater U.S. commitment than announced so far, stretching our military even further. The World Health Organization forecasts new Ebola cases could rise by 10,000 per week by December. That's a lot of panic and violence to subdue.

For another, it could place our soldiers in an impossible position, such as one in which Liberian soldiers recently found themselves. They had to choose between their safety and the public's when quarantine-triggered violent rioting left four people wounded and one 16-year-old boy dead.

Imagine U.S. soldiers being forced to make the same choice: having to shoot unarmed, possibly infected Liberian civilians or allow Ebola to spread.

A key difference between this proposed mission and our experience in Iraq is that human beings would be the roadside bombs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention isn't ready. One-hundred percent of the Ebola patients who contracted the disease on U.S. soil were full-time health-care professionals who did so while treating the disease under the guidance of the CDC. The CDC has flubbed its dress rehearsal and clearly is not ready for the big show.

Militarization of humanitarian aid risks involvement in internal disputes. All three countries at the center of the Ebola epidemic are politically unstable.

Sierra Leone and Liberia have only in recent years emerged from civil wars. Guinea was ruled by a military junta until 2010. Both Liberia and Guinea have canceled upcoming elections. We're told these countries are so unstable that a U.S. travel embargo alone could send them careening into chaos.

“You isolate them, you can cause unrest in the country,” said the National Institutes of Health's Anthony Fauci. “It's conceivable that government could fall.”

Foreign populations in these circumstances could perceive our military as taking sides in internal disputes. Think Somalia 1993 and you get the idea.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration remains opposed to travel bans, the one measure that might provide Americans some protection.

Our soldiers are being placed at enormous risk all because the president is unwilling — to borrow his own words from another crisis — to “plug the damn hole.”

David A. Ridenour is president of the National Center for Public Policy Research (nationalcenter.org).

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