Can a general be a czar?

Ebola Czar Should Be a General Not a Pol

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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I've know Ron Klain for years, respecting him as a smart operative who understands the nexus of politics and policy. His selection yesterday by President Barack Obama as the "Ebola czar" is a bad choice that will not stop the Democrats' political problems on this issue.

It is what it appears: A political decision forced on the president by political posturing and careless talk about a crisis. It appears that Klain doesn't even report directly to the president, but to National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Obama's homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco.

There was a near perfect choice for Obama: David Petraeus, the former general who commanded U.S. Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and was the Central Intelligence Agency director before forced out by reports of a sexual affair.

Ebola is a political and psychological problem in the U.S., not a medical one. The criticism of the Klain appointment by partisans such as Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, that an expert in epidemiology should have been chosen instead, is banal.

There is no imminent danger of an epidemic; there may be more cases, but hospitals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be far better prepared than the Dallas hospital that ignored protocols in treating the first Ebola patient.

Ebola is, however, an horrendous and deadly crisis in West Africa, with fears of 10,000 new cases cropping up weekly. It's a humanitarian tragedy and global threat. The need is for an urgent global response, and for the U.S. to take that lead.

What Obama should have sought is commanding figure who can cut through internal politics and bureaucracies, manage tens of thousands of people, and counter political irresponsibility. Who better fits that role, David Petraeus or Ron Klain ?

But, a few Democrats asked me, is Petraeus still damaged goods? And would he take it? Get real. The most respected American military figure since Dwight Eisenhower, who resigned two years ago because of an affair, wouldn't be welcome back in the post-Bill Clinton era? And it should have been the job of the commander inchief to persuade someone that this global tragedy called for great leadership. What better way for Petraeus to find redemption?

And he could have reassured scared Americans. Picture him with Anthony Fauci, the respected immunologist who heads the NIH's infectious diseases institute, answering head-line seeking and fear-mongering politicians.

Klain, a superbly qualified strategist who is eminently qualified for a cabinet post or to be White House chief of staff, lacks that credibility and standing. Republicans already are painting him as a political operative and accusing the administration of playing games.

That's a cheap shot, but one that may well resonate in the final two weeks of this election with a scared public that has worries about the president's leadership capacity and competence. Politically, Ebola is a phony issue; it's infinitely more important to get a flu shot than worry about being infected with Ebola.

But with his choice, Barack Obama has opened the door for an epidemic of political demagoguery.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net