Helping Humanity and Advancing American Interests

October 2, 2014

Public health advocates welcomed President Obama’s decision to deploy U.S. military assets in an effort to stymie the Ebola epidemic raging in West Africa. After an initially modest commitment, the United States is sending roughly 3,000 personnel to set up treatment centers and train healthcare workers in Liberia. While the principal goal of this move is to tackle an increasingly dire public health crisis, it also creates the potential to expand U.S. military involvement in a region where it has long been absent. In the recent past, humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions have provided the impetus for resetting relations and establishing stronger ties between the United States and recipient states. The Ebola relief effort thus presents an opportunity to develop broader links with regional governments, engage the civilian populations in a positive way, and lay the foundation for a new era of United States-West African ties.

For years, U.S. military participation in West Africa has been largely limited to noncombatant evacuation operations in the restless republics of the Gulf of Guinea. Recently, however, the Pentagon has begun to view the Gulf of Guinea as a critical region. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have taken the lead in expanding military ties through increased theater security cooperation activities, led by the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) and the African Partnership Station (APS). Marine Corps leadership is eager to find a permanent location for its SPMAGTF-CR (currently based in Moron, Spain) in the Gulf of Guinea to situate it closer to potential hotspots throughout Africa. With the exception of a few drone bases, the only permanent U.S. base on the continent is in Djibouti, nearly 3,000 miles away from the Gulf of Guinea in the Horn of Africa.

Theater security cooperation activities help deepen bilateral military engagement, but they do not foster the broad-based political and social connections that result from humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations. Over the past decade, there have been several instances where robust relief operations led by the United States ushered in closer diplomatic and military ties with recipient countries.

U.S. relations with Indonesia provide a useful example and demonstrate how an aid mission can reset relations. In 2004, Indonesia was a new democracy and the Bush Administration was looking for partners in the Muslim world, but Jakarta was highly skeptical of U.S. motives and did not reciprocate. This changed with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the US aid mission that followed. In total, the United States provided a $908 million aid package coupled with Operation Unified Assistance, one of the largest military disaster relief operations in history. The substantial aid package and military response forced close coordination between military and civilian leaders in both states and necessitated the removal of legal obstacles that limited the partnership, creating the momentum for a complete overhaul of relations.

Along with rebuilding ties to the government, the U.S. response elicited an outpouring of gratitude from the Indonesian public. Indonesians saw images of U.S. military personnel delivering aid to their compatriots, rather than attacking fellow Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. A similar pattern occurred in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The goodwill generated from the U.S. relief effort likely contributed to the Filipino government’s decision to expand their existing bilateral defense agreement, which had been previously mired in deadlocked negotiations. In Indonesia, the relief operation proved to be the starting point of a substantial revision in relations with the United States. Full military ties were reestablished in 2005 and a Comprehensive Partnership was signed in 2010.

By galvanizing public opinion and necessitating a holistic intergovernmental approach from both sides, humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions can provide a foundation for fostering broad-based relations – encompassing economic, diplomatic, and cultural issues – rather than just encouraging a narrow focus on security-related issues. These broad-based ties are necessary to convince a likely skeptical public of the benefits of having the U.S. military in their backyard. Relief operations also allow U.S. diplomats and local leaders to frame the U.S. military in a different – and more palatable – light. Despite the progress made after the tsunami, Indonesia’s government was initially opposed to the planned deployment of U.S. Marines off its coast in Darwin, Australia in 2011 but changed its position once the force’s efficacy in humanitarian operations was made clear.

The U.S. military is often uniquely capable of coordinating, supplying, and delivering aid throughout the world, and Americans should be proud of the aid efforts carried out in their name. It is important to keep in mind that generous aid missions are not a panacea and cannot overcome all barriers to an effective partnership, especially when pervasive mistrust plagues the relationship. United States aid following the 2010 floods in Pakistan did little to turn around the U.S. relationship with either the Pakistani government or the country’s population. Humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations are good in themselves and should not be wholly based on their potential strategic benefits. That said, humanitarian operations often have significant strategic implications, which provides an additional motivation for an increasingly cash-strapped nation to go out and do some good. The Ebola outbreak presents a difficult challenge, one that is very different from other natural disasters, and is likely to get worse before it gets better. But it also provides an opportunity for the U.S. military to rebrand itself on a continent where U.S. engagement has largely been limited to short-term crisis response, usually followed by precipitous withdrawal. Defeating the Ebola outbreak will be a costly and lengthy pursuit, but this operation can be the starting point toward closer U.S. engagement with the region. Hopefully, America’s leaders in the White House and in Congress appreciate the short and long-term benefits that can result from this relief mission, both for the people of West Africa and for the U.S. strategic position on the continent, and decide to fully invest in the effort to combat the Ebola crisis.

 

Taylor Teaford is a private sector security analyst and a graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed here are his own.

 

Photo credit: The U.S. Army