Besides the obvious humanitarian concern, this matters for many more reasons. First, the U.S. and many other nations have been investing vast resources over recent decades to nurture the very West African countries that are now most at risk. The U.S. helped in particular with rebuilding Liberia after its devastating civil war; Ebola threatens all of Liberia's (and America's) achievements.
Nigeria has emerged as a major U.S. regional partner and is also now at risk, although public health officials appear to be getting the upper hand against Ebola.
West Africa also increasingly finds itself on the front lines in the fight against a particularly virulent strain of Islamist radicalism. The most obvious example is in Nigeria, where the Boko Haram radical group recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, the terrorist organization the U.S. and its allies are seeking to defeat in Iraq and Syria. Boko Haram, which attracted global media attention in April by kidnapping 276 school girls, feeds off of the weakness of the Nigerian state and general public discontent, so the threat posed by Ebola represents a significant opportunity for the group. Similarly, all the other West African countries in which Ebola is now present have significant Muslim populations (Liberia) or are majority Muslim (Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone), and none is immune to radicalism. Thus U.S. development policy in the region and counterterrorism policy overlap.
In recent years, the U.S. has become much more adept at using its military power to respond to disasters around the world. The American military has repeatedly demonstrated that humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are parts of its mission. Examples include interventions ranging from the deployment of a field hospital in Indonesia following the 2010 Padang earthquake to the establishment of an air bridge into Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis devastated that country and, more recently, into the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.
In the case of Ebola, the U.S. response came slowly. President Obama initially responded to a call from Doctors Without Borders by announcing it would send a field hospital to Liberia to provide care for health workers there. Operation United Assistance represented an important step up in line both with the severity of the crisis and U.S. capabilities. As Doctors Without Borders made clear, the crisis requires a large-scale effort involving field treatment and testing centers along with the air bridges and logistical operations required to support and sustain them. Only the U.S., with its advanced logistical abilities, can play this role.
Such involvement is consistent with the U.S. strategy that highlights pandemics and infectious diseases as a national security challenges. It is also in line with recent U.S. efforts to develop solid humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities, as natural and man-made disasters continue to increase in number. At the same time, it is in line with U.S. counterterrorism initiatives in West Africa. As West Africa faces the worst Ebola epidemic ever and could use additional help from other countries beyond the U.S., Operation United Assistance sends the right message about the importance of this health crisis and the necessity to rally worldwide support to battle it.
Stephanie Pezard and Michael Shurkin are political scientists at the not-for-profit, nonpartisan RAND Corp.