Will Youmans, a fellow at the Palestine Center and hip-hop artist has put out a brief in which he argues that President Obama should dispatch the hospital ship USNS Mercy to Gaza.
One of the most powerful and visible symbols of American empathy with those in disaster-hit areas is the USNS Mercy, the leading hospital ship in the U.S. Navy. As a ship committed to emergency medical care, it is one of America’s most notable tools of medical diplomacy, having gained attention for its humanitarian contributions in tsunami-hit Asia in 2006. It would provide more capacity for health care and make a more prominent public diplomacy statement to the Arab world.
For a Barack Obama administration looking towards a new path of engagement with Arab and Muslim countries, sending substantive direct medical help to the people of Gaza would be both a significant gesture and a useful intervention to relieve mounting health care demands. The USNS Mercy and other hospital ships could perfectly fit such a mission, and they have in the past elsewhere. While this may not erase the harm done to American credibility during the Bush administration, it would be a visible step in the direction of re-positioning the United States–a departure from the previous President’s reckless disregard for civilian life.
As readers probably already know, I am a strong supporter of hospital ships for medical diplomacy. However, in this particular case a hospital ship is inappropriate and will send the wrong message. A major (and not unreasonable) criticism of employing the Navy as medical diplomats is that, no matter their true intentions, the mission is still a US military operation using military equipment. This was even an issue for the USS Kearsarge in Nicaragua where the US is on good terms. Thus, I hesitate to imagine how a US military ship off the Gazan coast would play out in the arab street (whatever its hull color).
The population of Gaza was just devastated by US weapon systems sold to Israel. Those controversial Israeli white phosphorus artillery rounds were made in a small town in Arkansas. The IDF AH-64s, F-16s, F-15s, M4s and M16s are also made in the US. The only thing the Gazan people want to see less than the Israeli military is the US military.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.