Is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a greater threat to US security than the current historic outbreak of the Ebola virus? If spending totals were an accurate indication of threat assessment, the answer would be “yes.” The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) estimates the US spent nearly $1 billion bombing ISIS targets in Iraq from August 8 to September 24, and this was merely the warm up act before President Obama ordered expanded bombing in Syria.
With the War on Terror now back in full swing, and the Pentagon and White House saying the new military campaign against ISIS “…could take years,” money is raining on US weapons manufacturers. Since August 1, the stock prices of America’s top four aerospace companies have jumped an average of nearly 7 percent, and the good times have barely begun. The air campaign in Syria is being waged with newly minted F-22 Raptor stealth jets that cost $67 billion to develop and $412 million each to purchase.
These jets are dropping satellite-guided bombs and Tomahawk missiles that cost $1.6 million each to blow up suspected ISIS vehicles, storage buildings and, according to one report from Aleppo Province, a cinder block residential home on a dirt street. At a “moderate” level, the CSBA estimates annual costs to bomb ISIS could be as high as $3.8 billion, while higher intensity bombing could reach $6.8 billion per year. The deployment of as few as 5,000 ground troops, which many military analysts think is inevitable, could run the cost up to $22 billion annually, per CSBA estimates.
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By comparison, the entire budget allocated by President Obama to fight the 2014 Ebola outbreak is $1 billion. Much of the total is being spent to deploy 3,200 US military personnel to build Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) in Liberia in an effort to contain the spread of the disease, meaning these troops will be exposed to the virus in the process. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), the government agencies that are leading US medical efforts to prevent the spread of Ebola, are being hampered by the effects of over $1 billion in cumulative budget cuts since 2010.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D.- Maryland), a ranking member on the House Budget Committee, addressed the CDC and NIH budget cuts in an Oct. 2, CNN interview: “There’s no doubt that the deep health care cuts that we’ve seen have made it more difficult to respond in a rapid and comprehensive way to the Ebola outbreak.”
The threat from Ebola is global. Any threat from ISIS, lurid beheading videos aside, pales in comparison. The Ebola virus was discovered in 1976 by Belgian microbiologist Peter Piot during an outbreak in Zaire (Now the Democratic Republic of the Congo – DRC) and South Sudan. According to the CDC, the 1976 Ebola outbreak infected 602 people in the DRC and Sudan, with 431 deaths. Until 2014, this was the worst Ebola outbreak with the highest number of fatalities since the discovery of the virus. The current, still-active Ebola outbreak that began March 2014 has infected 3,974 people in seven nations, including the United States and Spain, with 2,007 fatalities as of October 6. The 2014 outbreak is the largest and deadliest in history. In a recent Guardian interview, Piot confessed that he fears “. . . an unimaginable tragedy.” He believes “This isn’t just an epidemic any more. This is a humanitarian catastrophe.”
The 2014 Ebola outbreak is still thought to be manageable because there is currently no known risk of airborne transmission. However, the virus has spread much faster and farther than most experts thought possible, reaching large population centers in Africa for the first time. The World Health Organization has warned that total Ebola cases in West Africa could hit 21,000 by November without a more robust effort to fight the disease. Further, Anthony Banbury, the UN secretary general’s special representative, recently said of airborne transmission, “It is a nightmare scenario, but it can’t be ruled out.”
The disproportion in spending to fight ISIS vs. containing Ebola highlights a fatal distortion in US risk assessment and spending priorities. In spite of ISIS’ talent for generating macabre and goading publicity using the internet, many national security experts believe the ISIS threat is exaggerated. Yet the fear-based politics of the never-ending War on Terror have woven themselves so thoroughly into US political DNA, they continue to warp national budget and security priorities in ways that are a clear danger to public health and safety.
For example, Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, organized an international coalition to support US bombing of ISIS in six weeks and allocated $60 billion dollars up front for a multi-year bombing campaign, yet they have failed to effectively organize the international community to contain the spread of Ebola in the seven months since the outbreak began, while allocating a puny $1 billion budget for the entire project.
Rather than proposing viable actions that can mitigate the consequences of the outbreak, Congressional Republicans have seized on Ebola as a campaign issue for the midterm elections, using blatant fear mongering to scare voters and demonize Obama. Republicans who are using the right media wing noise machine to scare voters for purely political advantage are doing so because they know that Ebola is primarily a threat to Africa, not the United States.
The United States has a well-developed medical infrastructure and the ability to contain a non-airborne disease such as Ebola. In the West African nations at the heart of the outbreak, even basic items such as surgical gloves and masks are in short supply. This is why US leadership is so urgently needed and locking down air travel will hurt, rather than help.
At the same time as funding has been cut for the CDC and NIH, Republicans in Congress have sabotaged Obama’s pick for Surgeon General, leaving the United States without a national public health spokesperson to effectively communicate strategy and perspective during the worst Ebola outbreak in history. The failure of Congressional and presidential leadership is breathtaking. At a moment when US leadership is most urgently needed, the nation has chosen to spend billions of dollars to rain bombs on Syria in an ineffective campaign against ISIS, while mounting a tepid response to Ebola and devolving into midterm election squabbling for political advantage.
In the United States, the CDC is the lead health agency in the day-to-day fight against diseases such as Ebola. The 2015 CDC budget request is $6.6 billion, a $243 million decrease from 2014. For comparison, the National Priorities Project estimated total national security spending (Homeland Security, DOD, NSA, et al.) of $1.22 trillion in 2011. Within this total, the NSA budget is secret, although estimates range as high as $52.6 billion per year.
It is an appropriate symbol of warped national priorities that the United States is spending 800 percent more per year to spy on its own citizens than to protect public health and show international leadership on Ebola.
Is there a doctor in the house?