President Barack Obama speaks on Sept. 23, 2014, about the...

President Barack Obama speaks on Sept. 23, 2014, about the recent airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State. He was on the South Lawn of the White House. Credit: Getty Images / Win McNamee

The Obama administration has responded to the Ebola epidemic by talking big. It does that well. From the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti to Syria's use of chemical weapons in 2013, the administration has made a lot of splashy responses. But making a splash isn't the same as being serious.

Take the Haitian earthquake, which killed more than 300,000 people. The initial U.S. response, led by the Department of Defense, saved many lives, though analysis by the Rand Corp. found that our success was mostly due to luck: if different buildings had collapsed, the U.S. response would have been much more compromised. But the U.S. mission ended in June 2010.

That left the ongoing United Nations mission in charge. By late 2010, UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal had caused a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 8,000 people. In early 2010, Haiti seemed so important that it got a line in Obama's State of the Union address. But by late 2012, the United States had disbursed less than a third of its promised aid. The administration ignored the UN's failure and moved on.

In 2011, after an online video went viral, Obama deployed U.S. forces to Uganda to hunt down Joseph Kony, the murderous leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. In March he reinforced that mission. It would be good to eliminate Kony's small band of killers. But with neighboring South Sudan on the verge of genocide, Kony is little more than an infamous symbol in a region with far more serious problems.

The pattern is the same. A foreign problem makes the administration look bad, so it responds in a big way. But its efforts don't focus on substance. They're merely public relations.

In 2011, the United States provided most of the muscle for NATO's intervention in Libya, which Obama justified on the grounds that it was necessary to stop then-leader Moammar Gadhafi's "brutal repression." But the United States had no plan for what to do after it overthrew Gadhafi. Today, Libya is a failed state, with an elected parliament on the run from local and Islamist militias.

In 2012, Obama issued his "red line" on the Syrian use of chemical weapons. When the Syrians crossed it a year later, Russia, which wanted to protect Syria, made a deal with the United States to destroy the weapons Syria declared. But that did not stop Syria's use of chemicals: The Bashar Assad regime simply switched from sarin gas to chlorine. The problem was never sarin: It was Assad.

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In 2014, first lady Michelle Obama joined the #BringBackOurGirls campaign on Twitter. The girls are not back. More significantly, the Islamist terrorists who kidnapped them are still advancing in northeastern Nigeria. But now Ebola is the fashionable concern.

The Ebola epidemic has been raging since March, and the World Health Organization declared it an emergency in August. But a month after Obama said the disease was "spiraling out of control," the U.S. military effort in West Africa is barely getting off the ground.

There are a lot of smart, dedicated and brave people doing their best to stop Ebola in West Africa today. And Ebola, like all of the problems Obama's faced, is hard to cope with, much less to solve.

But under Obama, even when the United States acts, it has no attention span. His actions -- like Friday's appointment of an "Ebola czar" -- focus on symbols, and lack a competent, sustained follow-up. The point of his announcements is to win a quick burst of applause and then get the issue out of the headlines.

As the Ebola epidemic shows, the problem with trivializing foreign crises is simply this: They're not trivial. They affect us. And when we forget that, it's not just foreigners who die. It's Americans.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.


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