General Hospital

Why the GOP insists on finding a military solution for fighting Ebola.

White House Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain.
Ebola czar Ron Klain, not a general. Above, Klain at the White House on Oct. 22, 2014, in Washington.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republicans have a simple plan to deal with Ebola. First, ban travel from infected countries to the United States. Second, slap a three-week quarantine on any American returning from those countries. Medical organizations and federal health officials say these ideas are counterproductive, but that’s OK. Republicans don’t listen to doctors. They listen to generals.

Republicans have an unshakeable faith in military leaders. In 2001, Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, blew the chance to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora. That allowed Bin Laden to plot against the United States for another decade. Three years after Franks’ mistake, President Bush gave Franks the Medal of Freedom. In 2002, Bush’s Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, assured Americans and the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Powell’s presentation served as the basis for the Iraq war. The WMD never showed up, but Powell served out his term.

Being an Ebola doctor in West Africa can be more dangerous than being a soldier in Afghanistan. From 2001 to 2014, the total number of American military casualties in Afghanistan was 2,350. That’s an average of 14 per month. During the current Ebola outbreak, from March to August, the disease killed more than 120 health care workers in West Africa. That’s at least 20 per month. Nevertheless, Americans worship the heroism of soldiers, not doctors. In Gallup surveys, only 35 percent of Americans say they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the medical system. The percentage who express that level of confidence in the military is twice as high.

The gap is even bigger among Republicans, particularly since Ebola arrived in the United States. In a CBS News poll taken Oct. 15-16, Democrats were evenly divided on the performance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 49 percent rated the CDC’s performance good or excellent, while 49 percent rated it fair or poor. Republicans, however, gave the agency a clear thumbs down: 64 percent rated the CDC fair or poor; only 35 percent rated it good or excellent. When respondents were asked about the armed forces, the partisan split went the other way: 89 percent of Republicans expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, compared with 65 percent of Democrats.

This broad, deep political support, particularly among the party faithful, undergirds the Republican response to Ebola. Essentially, the GOP has militarized the issue: Seal the borders, impose a “no-fly zone” on West Africa, and quarantine anyone who shows up at our airports. Those brave doctors returning from Liberia? Lock ’em up. And if the doctors say we’re wrongheaded, tell people that the real authority on Ebola is our generals.

On Oct. 7, Gen. John F. Kelly, the Marine Corps general in charge of the U.S. Southern Command, told a crowd at the National Defense University that “there is no way we can keep Ebola [contained] in West Africa.” If Ebola breaks out in Central America, the general predicted, “there will be mass migration into the United States.” Kelly said he’d been told by a U.S. embassy staffer that some guys who’d been seen waiting to enter Nicaragua from Costa Rica were Liberian and that they “could have made it to New York City and still be within the incubation period for Ebola.” He offered no evidence that the men had Ebola. In fact, the number of verified Ebola cases in Central America was zero. But conservative websites pounced on his statements, reporting that he had said “the real threat of a domestic Ebola outbreak” was a “flood of Ebola-carrying border jumpers.”

Kelly’s statements became a rallying cry on the right. Scott Brown, the Republican Senate candidate in New Hampshire, concluded that Ebola “underscores the need to secure our borders.” When reporters pointed out that medical professionals disagreed with Brown’s advice, the candidate invoked Kelly as his expert. In a campaign debate, Brown had this exchange with Wolf Blitzer:

Brown: Gen. Kelly, who’s in charge of the border in Mexico, has indicated that the clearest pathway to bring anything—whether it’s criminals, terrorists, or disease—is through that southern border. So it’s not me talking. It’s also Gen. Kelly and many other people who care and understand this issue. That’s why we need to close the border. It’s so critical. I voted to close the border. Sen. [Jeanne] Shaheen has voted not to close the border, and that’s a huge difference between us.

Blitzer: Sen. Brown, let’s just be precise. Are you saying Ebola is crossing the border?

Brown: I’ve never said Ebola’s crossing the border, but Gen. Kelly has indicated and stated that the clearest path to get any type of disease—especially if Ebola hits Latin America—people are going to be coming through that southern border like it’s a wide-open situation, as it is, and even worse. And he recommends that we close it in the event that that happens.

In other words, Kelly was fantasizing. But because he’s a general, we’re supposed to take his fantasy more seriously than the recommendations of public health officials.

On Oct. 17, President Obama announced that Ron Klain, the former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, would coordinate the government’s response to Ebola. Republicans were outraged. They ridiculed Klain, pointing out that he had no medical training. Instead, they said Obama should have chosen “a four-star general or admiral.” A “much more appropriate type of appointee,” they suggested, would have been Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, the man who led the military task force that responded to Hurricane Katrina.

Honoré, like Klain, has no medical training. But he does have a lot of medals and a lot of ideas about how to fight Ebola. In a Fox News interview on Friday, Honoré spoke of Ebola as though it were a military adversary (“We’ve got to go on the offense and go after this disease”) or a hurricane (“We need to have a plan right now to evacuate people”). He said doctors couldn’t be trusted to follow protocols: “Forty percent of them don’t wash their hands. Forty-five percent of the doctors don’t even take the flu shot.” He advised viewers not to rely on “things that the CDC was saying,” and he suggested that Ebola might be transmitted in ways that doctors hadn’t acknowledged: “There’s still some unknowns about this disease. We ought to watch people who speak emphatically about how this disease operates.”

By all accounts, Honoré salvaged the federal response to Katrina after its disastrous start. But can you imagine this guy as the government’s spokesman on Ebola?

On Friday, Republicans tried to enlist another general in their campaign against the doctors. At a congressional hearing, they claimed that fighting Ebola was just like fighting terrorists, and they accused Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, of giving false testimony about how Ebola is transmitted. They summoned health officials and pressed them to endorse a travel ban and an automatic quarantine for doctors returning from West Africa. When the officials said these ideas were misguided, the Republicans turned to the witness in uniform, Maj. Gen. James Lariviere. They asked him to back up their claim that people could get Ebola by sitting next to an infected person on a bus. Instead, Lariviere deferred to guidance from the CDC and other medical authorities. Eventually, the congressmen grew exasperated. Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky told Lariviere:

Our confidence has been shaken in the CDC, because we get conflicting answers. And when I first heard the military was going overseas to combat Ebola, I was skeptical. But then, on second thought, I said, “That’s where the competency in the government resides, where the confidence resides [from] the American public, is with our military and their ability to focus on a mission.” Today you’ve answered some questions where you deferred to CDC guidance. … What I’m asking you, for the safety of the soldiers and for the safety of the public, is to use your own judgment. We trust the military actually more than the CDC on this. So please use that to guide you.

That, in naked form, is the GOP’s plea. The doctors won’t tell us what we want to hear, so we want you, the nation’s military brass, to back us up. People will follow us because they trust you. But please don’t delegate medical questions to people who know what they’re talking about. We’re not trying to learn here. We’re trying to lead.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Ebola.