Running Toward the Danger

Sotloff, Foley, and the doctors fighting Ebola are part of a vital breed of first responders demanded by a new global reality.

In the wake of 9/11, the world developed a special appreciation for first responders, the men and women who ran toward danger when they saw it. They risked all to help others, and fittingly there was a surge of recognition for cops and firefighters and paramedics -- both those lost in the twisted metal of lower Manhattan and those who carried on in the same tradition.

Neither James Foley nor Steven Sotloff wore a badge or a uniform. Nor did Mbalu Fonnie, Alex Moigboi, Alice Kovoma, Mohamed Fullah, or Sheik Umar Khan. But they embodied the first-responder spirit as truly and fully as any of those whose courage inspired us and whose sacrifices broke our hearts at the World Trade Center. For precisely that reason, out of genuine respect for them and their contribution to the world, it is essential we not make the same errors we did amid the anger and grief that marked the earliest days of what we once called the War on Terror.

Foley and Sotloff, the two American journalists who were recently brutally murdered by terrorists, chose to run into the flames of Syria even as the rest of the world looked away. They, like other journalists covering that country's civil war, knew that the risks they faced were grave. But they made a calculation that letting the slaughter in that country go unrecorded, unnoted, or uncommented upon would be compounding those battlefield atrocities with indifference. That would be inhumane and was so intolerable to them that they made their way into a country that many of the world's great and powerful leaders were doing their best to avoid and ignore. What does it say about a person who chooses to go on their own into mayhem that has already claimed almost 200,000 lives and do so without a weapon, without an army, without a congressional resolution? How deep must be their conviction that bearing witness is essential, the only possible human reaction, the one that might motivate others to action, to actually caring? 

Fonnie, Moigboi, Kovoma, Fullah, and Khan were all health-care professionals, doctors, nurses, and technicians who were affiliated with the Kenema Government Hospital's Lassa fever facility in Sierra Leone. All five, described in a moving Washington Post article from late August by Abby Ohlheiser, were co-authors of an important new Ebola study who died of the disease before their work could be made public. By virtue of their work, they were more acutely aware of the risks they faced from the current outbreak, the worst by far of its kind to date, one that has claimed more than 1,500 lives and may infect as many as 20,000 before it has run its course. Khan acknowledged this in late June by telling Reuters, "I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life.... Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk." But it was precisely because they knew the risks better than others -- better than those who were infected and spreading the disease -- that they chose to remain on the front lines of the efforts to combat the epidemic. Like other first responders, they too felt that the right response to a crisis is to run toward it rather than away from it.

Of course, Foley and Sotloff were not the only journalists to die in Syria, nor were they the only ones to be lost to the depravity of terrorists. Because they were Americans and because their murders were so gruesomely fed to the media and the grotesque appetites of the Internet, their stories have gained the most attention. But estimates as to the number of journalists lost in Syria alone range from 71 to more than 150. And, according to the World Health Organization, the number of doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers to have succumbed to this current Ebola outbreak was, as of late August, more than 120, with over 240 estimated to have contracted the disease.

Both of these totals pale to insignificance when weighed against the greater tolls of the crises that claimed the lives of these heroes. And other wars and genocides and epidemics are claiming their own fair share of such heroes, the first responders to these humanitarian catastrophes that many would prefer to ignore. All deserve the kinds of thoughts, attention, and prayers that we have offered on behalf of Foley and Sotloff, as well as our gratitude, because these are the people who, by risking their lives, make it impossible for the rest of us to look away. These are the people who risk their lives in order to offer a human touch to those whom most of humanity has abandoned. These are the people who demand that we cut through the impotence of high-minded political rhetoric and the incomprehensible mountains of statistics to reveal and serve the human beings at the heart of these problems.

That is why out of respect for their lives and for the spirit of what they do, we must consider our reactions carefully. It is easy for tabloid newspapers to offer up headlines demanding revenge or promoting scare stories. When infected American doctors returned home to the United States to be treated for Ebola, social media erupted with a debate about the risks this entailed, ignoring how hard it is for this disease to spread when properly contained, not to mention the plight of the health workers seeking treatment. This week, the bottom feeders of the American political commentariat sought to use the Sotloff tragedy as an opportunity to bash U.S. President Barack Obama for his inaction in Syria and to call for tough strikes against the journalists' murderers. For them, the death was just a prop, and their railing reflected their own character flaws more than those of any of the people they were decrying.

No, an appropriate response to these tragedies lies not with the empty rhetoric of politicians going through the motions of seeming to care or with the histrionics of hotheads and opportunists. It lies with the ideas that motivated all of these first responders to action: compassion, getting to the facts -- and then taking action even when the risks were high. In the case of Sotloff and Foley, not only does this mean that the world must heed their message that this crisis demands our attention, but it means knowing that spasms or showpieces of revenge are not enough. 

Nor is it enough simply to target the Islamic State. The entire Middle East and much of Africa and Asia are now at risk because of the spread of Islamist extremism, and as we learned with our too narrow focus on "core al Qaeda," targeting one group only ensures that others will assume its place. We need a comprehensive strategy to confront all such groups and to cut off their sources of funding and those who would give them comfort. And we must recognize that only through finding successful alternative political solutions to the problems on the ground can we fill the governance void that currently is the breeding ground and preferred environment for extremists. In the case of the Ebola battle, we must similarly not only contain and treat this disease, but recognize that the infrastructure, education, and resource gaps that enable an epidemic like this one to spread as it has threaten the world in ways that are greater than any one disease could.

Indeed, in both cases, what these first responders have shown are the costs of our indifference and inaction to date. And in both cases they demand a response that is not the narrow, crowd-pleasing "deliverables" of a political class that just wants ugliness off the front pages. Both crises are symptomatic of greater threats that demand long-term, global commitments to contain and eliminate them. Both require, in fact, governments, international institutions, and their leaders to act with something like the courage and humanity that defined the lives of Foley, Sotloff, the other journalists who have been lost bearing witness, the health-care workers fighting Ebola, and their colleagues fighting less well known but equally serious battles worldwide.

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The Great Defense Spending Distraction

Why you can’t just throw money at problems like the Islamic State and Ukraine.

There's nothing like a good round of international conflict to bring the folks who want to spend more on defense out of the closet. The last few weeks, even months, do not disappoint. A commitment to "spend more" or "spend something" is almost as good as doing something. NATO is in high dudgeon this week, meeting about Vladimir Putin's intrusion into Ukraine (when are folks going to call it the invasion it really is?). And the allies have a side order of the Islamic State (IS) and Syria on the table as well.

Typically, defense budgets have become the avatar that stands in for action. In Wales the call for spending more on defense is not going "gentle into that good night," (to misuse the words of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas). For months, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been singing from the "burden-sharing" hymnal, joining virtually all of his predecessors since the 1970s in calling for the European allies to spend more on defense. The outgoing NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has joined the call.

This week, the members of NATO are very likely to trot out, once again, the meaningless joint commitment first made in the 1970s to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, a level only achieved today by the United States, Britain, Greece (who really only care about the Turks), and that superlative NATO Baltic ally, Estonia. Germany itself comes in at 1.3 percent; even France is below the line.

Making more defense money the symbolic substitute for policy is not a weakness of NATO alone. The call for "more" in response to world events has become a hardy staple of U.S. domestic arguments over the budget. The ubiquitous, Obama-bashing, non-appropriations (meaning they aren't really responsible for money decisions anyway) talking head, Sen. John McCain, seized the IS and Ukraine moment to continue his decades-long tour on the Sunday talk shows (who never seem to tire of him) calling for more U.S. defense spending and relief for DoD from the constraints of the Budget Control Act and the dreaded "sequester" monster.

Even the administration has not resisted the temptation to throw money at crises. In June President Barack Obama made a point of calling for $5 billion more in (80 percent) defense spending (20 percent belongs to State, after some political infighting in the administration) to fund counterterrorism partnership activities (still undefined) with other countries. As I noted when he made this pledge, the money seemed to substitute for the absence of any details about the strategy or the programs these funds would support. He pledged even more security assistance funds to the African Summit in August, with minimal program details.

Throwing money at a problem is a tried-and-true Washington response to crisis. When the crisis is domestic, conservatives come up on the net and the air is filled with cries of "big government." The Obama administration's request for nearly $4 billion to deal with the immigration crisis of this past summer is still languishing in the Republican House.

But when the call is for homeland security (over $600 billion spent since the Department was created) or, especially for DoD and the military, throwing money is the favorite political gesture. The defenders of defense will spare no dollar in vocalizing their commitment to our security. In the early part of this century, after 9/11 and with troops in Iraq, Congress not only voted every dollar requested for special war spending bills, it asked no serious question as it doubled non-war defense spending, as well. More money was the answer.

Now we are again being told that the Europeans should spend more and the United States should unshackle the defense budget from any discipline as a way of saying we are serious about the challenges we face.

Truth time: it has never been about the money. It's about the policy and the capabilities, stupid.

What is at issue in Europe is capability. If the Europeans ever actually reached the 2 percent defense spending threshold across the Alliance, they would still produce an excess of the kind of defense capability that is not needed (heavy ground combat units or very small air forces) that do not work together well), and militaries that duplicate, rather than complement each other. 

They spend enough to create up-to-date, deployable forces, but the ones too many of them build are nationally based and static. And they do not build them to a common, trans-European, integrated plan. There is a significant Italian ground force, an even larger German one, a very large French one, and a small, but agile, British one. But there is not much in the way of a European force that eliminates the duplication among these national forces and is designed in an integrated way to deploy rapidly inside or outside the European theater.

It is taking the Europeans too long to buy adequate European air lift for the French to deploy forces to Africa and the aircraft they are buying (the A400M) will likely need refueling (little European capability exists) to deploy forces out of the European region. Europe struggles to put a modern, cross-country, drone capability together.

Europe has made progress on operating jointly, as the more static European deployment in the Balkans shows. France, with U.S. support (lift, intelligence, drones, refueling) has done well in North and West Africa. But spending more is not what the Europeans need to do, as the Center for a New American Security pointed out this week. And insistently demanding that they do it misses the point. What's missing is a common, integrated European defense policy, defense industry, and military capability. The European Union has not met this goal, though it was set out in the 1990s, and the Europeans have not done much better in the NATO context.

The same critique applies to the United States. Americans outspend every other country in the world on defense. They put up 70 percent of the Alliance's total defense spending.  They even have a special little fiscal kitty -- called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds -- that has allowed DoD to escape "sequester" and the BCA with minimal damage for the past three years.

Properly coordinated with the allies, the United States could fund every cent of the current anti-IS air operation, and even a more extensive one including IS in Syria (the wisdom of doing so is another question) within existing budgetary resources, including the OCO funding.

But, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, conflict is the last refuge of a budgetary scoundrel. Rather than make tough choices, provide budget discipline, focus on the enormous budgetary overhang created by a large bureaucracy and a legion of contractors providing services to DoD,  it's just easier to ask for more. Rather than build the European capacity the United States and its NATO allies think they need, it is easier to bang the drum of "burden-sharing." The conflicts in the Ukraine and the Middle East are being used to avoid the hard work of discipline and efficiency in defense planning on both continents.

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