The political world’s interest in the Ebola virus largely withered after the midterm elections came and went, only to disappear altogether once the number of infected Americans dropped to zero. But before the public-health scare disappears entirely from our collective memories, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the significance of last night’s announcement.
The U.S. military is pulling most of its troops from Ebola-affected Liberia, and more than half of them are already out, the Defense Department said Tuesday night.The troops started moving in last fall, when Ebola cases were spreading out of control. Now, Liberia is managing just a handful of new cases, although health officials caution the epidemic could reignite at any moment.
President Obama last fall deployed 2,800 Defense Department personnel to West Africa. As of yesterday, more than half are already back, and by April, nearly all will have returned. The United States, the administration added, “will continue to fund thousands of civilians – mostly African nationals – to continue fighting the virus’s spread in West Africa.”
The shift, the Pentagon said in a statement, is the result of “the success of the U.S. response to the crisis.”
And while boasts are common in press statements like these, the Defense Department’s assessment in this case is entirely accurate. Michael Tomasky’s take on this the other day rings true:
The American government’s response to the Ebola crisis has been not just good; it’s been nothing short of spectacular. It happened fast. And it changed reality for the better not on one but on two fronts – both domestically and in the three affected West African nations. Remember the panic, the media craziness, the potshots at Obama’s choice for Ebola czar of Ron Klain, because he had no direct health-policy experience?Well, all of it looks completely ridiculous now. This time, government worked, in a huge way.
That’s no small development. When Republicans turned Ebola into a partisan campaign issue last fall, they weren’t just trying to exploit public anxiety for public gain; GOP officeholders and candidates were trying to undermine Americans’ confidence in the government itself.
Iowa’s Joni Ernst (R) suggested President Obama didn’t care whether or not Americans got Ebola. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) argued that public-health officials were not to be trusted. Jeb Bush blasted the president’s handling of the threat as “incompetent.”
They were completely wrong, but more important is the fact that their ideology was wrong – the right was convinced government couldn’t be counted on to respond to the emergency because government, by its very nature, is inherently slow, unreliable, and ineffectual.
And yet, here we are, with powerful evidence to the contrary.
I realize this probably won’t be a big media story this week. “Government screws up” generates headlines; “Government performs beautifully” does not. That’s just the nature of things. But as the country’s larger political argument over the proper role of the public sector continues, let’s keep the response to the Ebola crisis in mind – it’s a reminder of just how skillful the government can be in competent hands.
Postscript: On a related note, Mark Leon Goldberg had a good piece the other day arguing that it wasn’t just the public sector that performed well in this case, but also the United States in particular that stepped up and showed important leadership internationally. Every Republican who remains convinced that Obama “refuses to lead” and “retreats from the world” should take note.