Obama annoyed by weak Ebola response from France, Italy and others

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Obama annoyed by weak Ebola response from France, Italy and others

Even as the wobbly U.S. response to Ebola dominated the headlines this week, President Barack Obama ramped up a frustration-powered campaign to get reluctant major allies to shoulder more of the burden of quelling the deadly outbreak at its source in West Africa.

Speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting with top aides on Wednesday, the president put his personal annoyance on full display as he portrayed the international response to the crisis as hesitant and shortsighted and warned that it endangered American national security.

“This is not simply charity,” he intoned. “Probably the single most important thing that we can do to prevent a more serious Ebola outbreak in this country is making sure that we get what is a raging epidemic right now in West Africa under control.”

Obama declared that he had convened a videoconference earlier in the day with leaders of core U.S. allies Britain, France, Germany and Italy “to make sure that we are coordinating our efforts and that we are putting in a lot more resources than, so far at least, the international community has put into this process.”

If Ebola tears unchecked through West Africa, Obama warned, “then it will spread globally in an age of frequent travel and the kind of constant interactions that people have across borders.”

Despite that sense of alarm, U.S. officials say it’s not yet time to “name and shame” specific rich countries that, in some cases, have kicked in less cash than the $25 million that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have pledged.

But the frustration is obvious at every level of the Obama administration. It burst through at State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s daily press briefing on Wednesday, when she was asked about Cuba’s contribution to the international response.

“There are some countries that are larger than Cuba that have not contributed as much as Cuba,” she said drily.

And key Obama aides at the White House and in the State Department, as well as sources in Congress, describe Obama as annoyed to the point of anger with countries like France and Italy, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union Council.

Allies like Australia and Canada can also expect escalating U.S. pressure. And officials say China ought to contribute in a way that befits a rising world power.

The “top disappointments are France and Italy — (they) top the list of 'talk most, do least,'” a senior administration official told Yahoo News. The official requested anonymity to describe the situation candidly.

White House aides briefed Congress this week and said France had been "asked to take leadership in Guinea" and "could do more," according to a congressional source.

The tensions were evident in rival French and American accounts of a telephone call between Obama and French President Francois Hollande on Monday.

In the official description released in Paris, Hollande announced that France would build new treatment centers in Guinea. In the White House version of the call, Obama was notably silent on the issue of France’s contributions in the fight against Ebola — but he did thank Paris for its help in the war against the Islamic State militants.

U.S. officials say privately that Australia and Canada should be providing more health care workers. One official predicted that China would unveil some kind of aid package, but that Beijing would tailor it for maximum Chinese economic advantage. “Just watch. It’ll be for Sierra Leone, because: diamonds,” the official said, referring to one of that country’s signature exports.

The international response has been lackluster despite an aggressive U.S. effort to bring global resources to bear on the dangerous tragedy in West Africa.

“We have devised specific asks of virtually every country we think is in a position to contribute,” one official said. “We’ve been in touch, multiple times in some cases, with the countries that are best positioned to help.”

The most frequent requests are for countries to build Ebola treatment units, known inside government as ETUs, or to provide health care workers, purchase medical supplies, or send funds, often through established international groups like the Red Cross or the French-founded Doctors Without Borders.

There’s no clear consensus on why Obama — unpopular at home, nearly a lame duck — has struggled to galvanize the international response to Ebola. Some supporters note that he rallied a vigorous coalition against the IS, and others suggest that many countries just don’t feel the same urgency when it comes to Ebola.

“The volume of African travelers that change planes in European capitals creates an inherently escalated level of risk, so you'd think these governments would want to play a more active role in preventing the virus from landing there,” one U.S. official said.

Obama isn’t the only international figure deploring the anemic global response to Ebola.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Yahoo Germany in an exclusive interview that the crisis is an “epidemic of global dimension and global threat” that requires an urgent global response.

“In a globalized world, it is an illusion to think that such a disease can be contained locally,” Maurer warned. “Every local collapse of a system like we see now in Liberia includes the threat of a global health catastrophe.”

Maurer underlined the gap between pledges of assistance and aid actually delivered.

“There are a lot of announcements,” he said. “But when I ask my colleagues on-site about the aid already arrived, then this result is less than all the warm words.”

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