Operation Just Cause in Panama

The significance of the US military intervention into Panama is underrecognized. Obscured by the restoration of sovereignty in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the Persian Gulf War, the storm unleashed against Panama was of a lesser geopolitical magnitude. Plus, the Panama operations effectively attained its objectives with minimum casualties on either side. Smoothly executed with few unpolished surfaces inviting controversy to cling, the news media and the public quickly lost interest in what was regarded as a fait accompli from which the United States extracted itself in a matter of months. Yet, the brief, sharp incursion set the paradigm for subsequent US military actions in Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq for the second time.

Panama included the concepts of regime change, unilateral American leadership with limited allied participation, and humanitarian justification as a political cover for practical US interests. These elements showed up in subsequent interventions. The Panama operation, as the first, post-Berlin Wall, armed intercession, set the stage and threshold for others. It also strengthened the engagement cycle inherited from the Reagan administration. In fact, the Panama invasion even swung the foreign policy pendulum higher than the previous Washington government.

Historically, Washington had a political stake in Panama at least from the earliest years of the twentieth century, when it was governed by Colombia. Panama occupied valuable real estate between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Its value boomed with California’s exploding population, as settlers flocked to the new El Dorado at the start of the Gold Rush in 1849. Ships bound to and from California had to sail far south along the South American coast, round the Cape Horn, and then tack up the other sides of South America. In 1855, the Panamanian Railway spanned the isthmus and facilitated passenger travel between the two vast oceans. But direct East-West shipping awaited an isthmian waterway. French investors first attempted digging a canal under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who developed the Suez Canal in Egypt. The venture failed due to bankruptcy and the deaths of thousands of workers from malaria and yellow fever. This failure opened the way for the United States.

President Theodore Roosevelt hatched a plan of guile rather than gunfire to wrest the Panamanian territory from Colombian rule. When Colombia’s parliament turned down requests for ratification of a treaty for a strip of land to build a trans-ocean seaway, Roosevelt outmaneuvered the Colombians. He made it known to the anti-Colombian rebels within Panama that the United States stood ready to back their independence from Bogota’s domination. Washington granted diplomatic recognition to Panama’s sovereignty three days after its rebellion erupted. To safeguard the fledgling country, Roosevelt steamed warships to the Panamanian coast to stop Colombian vessels from landing troops to crush the revolt. His agents even bribed a Colombian admiral to leave the coast. To salve hurt feelings, Washington later transferred a payment to the Bogota government. Soon afterward, it leased the Canal Zone, a ten-mile buffer on each side of the intended waterway, and restarted construction of a sea passage. The Panama Canal opened for trans-ocean traffic in 1914.

The United States kept a wary eye on Central American states after inaugurating the Panama Canal. As America’s global role grew, the importance of the water transit loomed larger for transoceanic trade and warship navigation between the Atlantic and Pacific. During the Cold War, the Pentagon regarded the oceanic passageway as a strategic “choke point.” Panamanians resented Washington’s control over the Canal Zone but the political elite benefited from US financial transfers. The US exclusivity in the Canal Zone terminated when in 1977 President Jimmy Carter rammed through Congress a treaty returning the canal to Panamanian sovereignty, with both countries guaranteeing the waterway’s neutrality. Shortly after, Carter signed two treaties with Panamanian General Omar Torrijos, who had seized power in 1968. The Torrijos-Carter treaties abrogated the 1903 US-Panamanian treaty and gave operational control to Panama for the Canal after 1999. The United States retained the right to defend the waterway from threats to its service for ships of all countries.

This status change did not end Washington’s interest in Panama, particularly when it perceived instability developing in the small country. When longtime strongman Omar Torrijos died in 1981, his civilian successors were increasingly beholden to the military officers for their rule. Army General Manuel Antonio Noriega became the de facto ruler. He ran the country from behind the scenes through manipulation, intimidation, and strong-arm tactics. Behind his back, people called him Pineapple Face, a reference to his acne and resulting scars. But they bowed to his harsh rule.

Alarmed by increasing corrupt authoritarian rule within Panama, George Bush embarked on a forward policy to set things right in the isthmian dictatorship soon after moving into the White House. Trouble had been brewing in the country throughout the 1980s and was attributable in no small measure to Noriega. A onetime CIA asset, Noriega proved useful to the Reagan administration in funneling money and perhaps weapons to the Nicaraguan contras fighting the Sandinistas, until Congress legislated against contra support. General Noriega was also in the pay of the Medellin, the Colombian drug cartel, for letting narcotic shipments transit Panamanian territory for the US market and for moneylaundering services. With the decline of the Soviet threat and winding down of the Central American guerrilla wars, Washington no longer needed to turn a blind eye toward Noriega’s role in supplying cocaine to North American customers. In 1988, a US federal court in Florida issued an indictment against the despot for his role in drug trafficking. These changed circumstances failed to register with Noriega, who took delight in flaunting Washington’s growing concerns.

In the waning days of the Reagan presidency, Washington’s mandarins were tired of Noriega’s antics. But it fell to the incoming George Bush administration to confront the wayward dictator. In May 1989, Panama held an election, in which Guillermo Endara was regarded as the winner by independent observers, who reported that the election had been stolen. Noriega voided the election returns, claiming “foreign” interference tainted the count. The United States recognized Endara as the new president. Even so, Noriega put up a crony as president. Washington countered by imposing economic sanctions on Panama. Afterward, tensions spiked between the United States and Panama. In the Panama Canal Zone, which US military forces garrisoned, a fraught standoff simmered with the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF).

The Bush White House had geopolitical worries about a Noriega- dominated Panama beyond what could have been seen as simply a personalized mano-a-mano struggle between the Panamanian dictator and an American president. Under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty, passed during the Carter presidency, the United States agreed to turn over the chairmanship on the Canal Commission to a Panamanian official, selected by the government in 1990. American strategists still regarded the passageway as a critical artery. Bush was not keen on having a Noriega hack head up the commission. Ousting Noriega offered the best course for stability in Panama and the appointment of a reasonable commission chairman. The American government placed its hopes in the 1989 election. When Noriega stole the presidency from Endara, who won it with an estimated 62 percent of the vote, the United States resolved to lay down a tougher line toward the dictatorial regime.

The day after the election, President Bush declared: “the days of the dictator are over.”22 Next, the White House recalled the US ambassador to the Panama, reduced the embassy staff by two-thirds, and deployed an infantry brigade to strengthen the 12,000 troops already garrisoned in the Panama Canal Zone. The American forces, soon after, held more military exercises as means to step up the psychological warfare directed against the tyrannical ruler. Washington also took its case for regime change in Panama to the Organization of the American States (OAS). The OAS turned down the United States, because it long feared and resented what many Latin Americans viewed as the overweening behavior of the Colossus of the North in their hemisphere. US interference for over a century accounted for the OAS’s demand for punctilious adherence to its principle of non-interference in the affairs of neighboring states. Secretary of State Baker concluded that “it was important to give the OAS a chance—if for no other reason than...the United States had exhausted every peaceful, diplomatic alternative.”23

Manuel Noriega struck back against the US pressure tactics, which ended up aggravating the Bush administration. He took money from Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and arms from Fidel Castro’s Cuba for his paramilitary Dignity Battalions, which were a Praetorian militia owing allegiance alone to Noriega. The military strongman escalated his anti-US rhetoric. The tense tit-for-tat exchange between the two states generated internal critics in both countries. President Bush, for example, encountered criticism from his domestic political opponents who saw this policy as either ineffectual or war-mongering toward a small, isolated nonWestern country. Inside Panama, the diplomatic spat with the Colossus of the North presented opportunities to men with a “lean and hungry look” eager to depose Noriega, if the United States could be persuaded to assist their putsch.

Behind closed doors, the top Bush officials hoped for a coup and a more reasonable Panamanian caudillo. The White House fine-tuned its anti-Noriega jibes to make it plain that they were directed toward the venal general and not the Panamanian people. A Panamanian army major, Moises Giroldi Vega, did, in fact, seize and hold the strongman in fall 1989. But, alas, the plotters failed and came to grief for a variety of reasons. Although US military intelligence officers were tipped off by the major’s wife, their report was disbelieved by most White House officials. Only Bush believed the information and wanted to act on it. The debate and skepticism delayed any practical US response. Major Giroldi expressed the perfunctory rhetoric about his desire to restore democracy to Panama—a necessary justification for US backing of the usurpation. Many of his grievances, nonetheless, were about withheld military pay and service conditions. Thus, he lacked standing in the broader society. Most grievously, he bungled by allowing the captured Noriega to call his rescuers and, thus, to escape. Once free, he had his captors placed in custody, tortured, and executed. Next, the military dictatorship purged the ranks of the Panamanian Defenses Forces to root out Giroldi sympathizers. While a comic opera incident, the badly staged coup served as a wake-up call to the beleaguered Noriega.

The upshot was that the Bush administration could not count on another coup remove its Panamanian irritant. Yet, it persisted in attempting to foment an internal revolt by authorizing the CIA to offer a mere $3 million to would-be conspirators. Even these minimalist machinations blew up in the president’s face when his intentions were revealed in the US media in November 1989.24 Thereafter, Washington ruled out plots to overthrow the thorn in its side. Instead, it turned to a large-scale US military invasion to topple the despot.

Late in 1989, the Pentagon reinforced the garrisoned in the Canal Zone with an additional 10,000 soldiers. These reinforcements simultaneously acted as provocation and deterrent. Had Noriega placed discretion over foolhardiness, he might have remained in power. A misplaced sense of invulnerability and a clutch of toadies egged on the Panamanian Bonaparte, who persisted in taunting and threatening his powerful neighbor to the north. The spark that lit the fuse came when members of the Dignity Battalions shot and killed a US Marine officer riding in a jeep. In reaction, the President Bush summoned his top advisers to the White House. They held that only a stiff military response would end the string of provocations from Noriega and his henchmen. The presidential aides fretted about further threats and deaths of Americans, while the erratic martinet lorded over an increasingly impoverished thugocracy. A martial intervention risked casualties—American and Panamanian—but at the end of the day the United States and Panama would be rid of General Noriega.

White House officials wrestled with the legal justification for an armed incursion into a country, which after all had not attacked the United States. Intervention violated international law. For the United States, which set itself up as a guarantor of the global order, being compliant with international law carried an especial burden. Thus the Bush administration took pains to rollout an unassailable charge sheet against its target. It cataloged Noriega’s stealing the May election, his narcotics dealing and the US federal indictment for these criminal offenses, his ultimate responsibility for the dead Marine officer, and his potential imperiling of the transfer of the Panama Canal authority to a responsible Panamanian official. The autocrat’s illegitimate regime undercut his anti-US supporters in Latin America, because it placed them in the ranks of defending dictatorships.

The Bush government rested its case on the provisions of the Canal treaties. The agreements authorized the United States to address internal perils as well as external ones. In this instance, the dangers emanated from the Noriega and his thugs. Washington considered the hostile actions against the United States by the growing number of PDF’s assaults against US military forces, their dependents, and even Panamanian civilians within the Canal Zone. Noriega inflamed the edgy atmosphere, when he announced that he would “sit along the banks of the Canal to watch the dead bodies of our enemies pass by.”25 As rumors circulated about an impending US attack, the Noriega-choreographed parliament declared: “the Republic of Panama is in a state of war for the duration of the aggression unleashed against the Panamanian people by the U.S. Government” on December 15, 1989.26

Washington took up this Panamanian declaration of hostilities. On December 20, 1989, the Bush administration launched a military invasion into Panama. Operation Just Cause aimed at regime change through the deployment of US armed forces, who marched out of their Canal Zone barracks, dropped from the sky in parachutes, or landed in the belly of Air Force transports. Planes and troops left from southern bases within the United States, achieving tactical surprise despite all the media speculation for weeks about the likelihood of an attack. The Pentagon’s operations initially unfolded in a clockwork fashion with few notable glitches. The synchronized ground and paratrooper assaults succeeded in routing Panamanian forces. By the first days of 1990, US military units had crushed organized resistance in spite of unexpected doggedness by the 4000 PDF troops and the Dignity Battalions. Yet, the Panamanian defenders stood no chance to turn back 27,000 US troops who descended on their land in the biggest military deployment since the Vietnam War and the largest paratrooper drop since World War II.27

Two hitches in the execution of the armed intercession into Panama foreshadowed much larger difficulties for the United States during the Iraq War, nearly a decade and half later. One was the temporary disappearance of Noriega, who like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein went into hiding. To root Noriega out of his hideaway, US authorities offered a $1 million reward for his whereabouts. Noriega eluded custody at first by hiding out and then taking sanctuary with the Roman Catholic’s papal nuncio in Panama City. Following lengthy, convoluted talks among local US military commanders, Panamanian officials, the Vatican, and the nunciature itself, the ousted dictator walked out of his religious sanctuary and to the safety of American military authorities. Part of his motivation was to escape capture by a hostile crowd, which circled the Vatican embassy, demanding his death. Arrested by Drug Enforcement Agency officials, Noriega was whisked away to a Florida court, which indicted him. There, he stood trial for drug trafficking and racketeering, all the while protesting his innocence as a political prisoner. He was sentenced to a US penitentiary. After release in 2010, the onetime dictator was extradited to France where he served another prison term for money laundering. Next, he was handed over to Panamanian hands for a 20-year incarceration as punishment for several deaths.28

The second post-invasion glitch stemmed from the unanticipated chaotic landscape after the Panamanian military ceased resistance to US forces. Rioting, looting, and unruly crowds plagued Panama City and other urban centers. The Pentagon planned for short, minor disturbances but the scale and length of the street turmoil took it by surprise. As a result, the Department of Defense deployed an additional 2000 infantrymen to curb vandalism and restore calm. Although Panama’s civilian unrest finally dissipated, it presaged far worse unrest in Iraq that contributed to an insurgency against the invading armies. As such, the Panama case should have alerted Washington policy-makers about a very likely turn of events in post-invasion Iraq, when residents took to the streets to pillage, destroy, and confront American-led Coalition soldiers.

Military operations were only a part of the US intervention into a Latin American country. Diplomacy figured largely in Bush calculations. With its long history of meddling in the Southern Hemisphere, the United States sought acquiescence, if not approval, from the Organization of American States prior to its military operations. After the fraudulent May 1989 elections, the OAS issued a condemnation of the electoral fraud but stipulated that “no state... has the right to intervene...in the internal or external affairs of another.”29 Subsequent Washington negotiations with the OAS failed to budge the Latin American countries to endorse US policy. South America remained aggrieved at its northern neighbor.

Overall, the Panama intervention accomplished its goals. It rid Panama of a corrupt desperado. The regime-change operation did move the country toward self-sustaining democracy. The Bush White House had a plan in place to install the rightful victor of the previous May presidential election, Guillermo Endara. From neighboring Costa Rica, Endara broadcast a message of hope to his fellow countrymen, as US paratroopers parachuted to earth. Thus, the United States was spared the post-invasion problems of Iraq, when it lacked a leader-in-waiting to pick up the reins of power, allowing American forces to withdraw speedily from the battlefield.

Despite the paucity of US financial assistance to the desperate country, Panama fared better than many of its neighbors. Since the intrusion, it has held several presidential elections declared free and fair by international observers. Its military stayed in the barracks and out of politics. An economic boom transformed the skyline of its major urban centers. The trauma of Noriega’s venal and wicked dictatorship has receded. Whereas many subsequent US politico-military actions failed or left behind disfigured societies, Panama was clearly better off for Washington’s interference. Once the attack unrolled, the White House moved quickly to take steps aimed at political cover for the invasion. It transported presidentelect Endara and his two vice presidents to the Canal Zone; they were sworn into office by the head of Panamanian Commission on Human Rights. Thus, American might was seen as restoring democracy and not installing a foreign occupation. Washington also lifted economic sanctions and unfroze some Panamanian financial assets held in US banks to fund the new Endara government.

The OAS objected vociferously to America’s invasion and the US military presence on South American soil in spite of Washington’s charm offensive. Twenty OAS member states passed a resolution in Spanish “deeply deploring” the US invasion; six states abstained from the vote. Only the United States backed its own action. Its southern neighbors interpreted the attack as just another episode of “gunboat diplomacy” for Washington’s exclusive interests. But their united and overwhelming opposition reached an unprecedented level in OAS history. The negative vote represented a singular defeat for the United States. Even though Endara, the new Panamanian president, spoke out in defense of the United States and its restoration of democracy in the tiny country, his voice counted for naught. If anything, the negative reaction to yet another case of Yankee trespassing below the Rio Grande presaged the international hostility that later greeted American armed interventions into the Persian Gulf and Southeastern Europe.

There is no gainsaying the fact that this international hostility to American interventionism played a part in the US cycler swings from overseas engagements toward retrenchment. Within both major political parties, there are found isolationist wings, which favor little or no foreign engagement beyond trade and routine diplomacy. Politicians and pundits of this school quickly echo foreign opposition to American overseas’ actions. Author and politician, Patrick Buchanan, for example, concluded his book A Republic, Not An Empire with a warning: “entangling alliances, history shows, are transmission belts of war.”30 Public opinion itself has traditionally been wary of prolonged military interventions. Americans have never accepted long wars with expensive outlays in lives and funds. The US regime change in Panama set a post-Cold War precedent for American governments toward unruly dictators, which saw repetition in President Bill Clinton’s assisted removal of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and George W. Bush’s toppling of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

Several factors contributed to the Bush senior administration’s escape from a domestic backlash for the Panama incursion. It was of short duration. Violent clashes tapered off after a week to just sporadic shots for a slightly longer period. The complete withdrawal of all American ground troops took place less than three months after the invasion. Casualties were light with 23 US troop deaths. The United States officially held that 324 Panamanian soldiers and 220 civilians died; the locals, however, claimed thousands more were killed.31 Thus, the relative inexpensiveness of the Panama conflict generated no real groundswell against Bush’s internationalism. The pendulum of strategic engagement still arched high at this phase of the Bush presidency. Before he left the White House, Bush policies had nudged the cycler swing toward disengagement, as will be described in the next chapter.

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