How the 1989 War on Manuel Noriega’s Panama Super-Charged US Militarism

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How the 1989 War on Manuel Noriega’s Panama Super-Charged US Militarism

It brought together neocons and realists in a warm-up act for the first Gulf War.

Noriega takes part in a conference at the Atlapa centre in Panama City in 1989. (Photo: Alberto Lowe/Reuters)

Manuel Noriega is dead at 83. He seems like a sad footnote to the last disastrous quarter century, but the December 1989 US invasion of Panama really was a permission slip for Washington—led by both Republicans and Democrats—to waste whatever potential benefits the end of the Cold War might have brought. Remember the “peace dividend”? The Berlin Wall had just fallen on November 9, and George H.W. Bush, the “realist,” was quick to use Panama to leverage the collapse of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe, declaring the end of “sovereignty” and the right of the United States to invade other countries in the name of “democracy” and “human rights.”

“Today we are…living in historic times,” Bush’s ambassador to the OAS, Luigi Einaudi, lectured, two days after the invasion, “a time when a great principle is spreading across the world like wildfire. That principle, as we all know, is the revolutionary idea that people, not governments, are sovereign.” From Panama, it was a fast slide into Iraq, both wars I and II.

I wrote about the Panama invasion as a prelude to Iraq for Tomdispatch two years ago, here. Here are some of the takeaways, about the war and its consequences:

  • More than 20 US soldiers were killed and 300-500 Panamanian combatants died as well. We still don’t know how many civilians died, since US officials didn’t bother to count the dead in El Chorrillo, a poor Panama City barrio that US planes indiscriminately bombed because it was thought to be a bastion of support for Noriega. Grassroots human-rights organizations claimed thousands of civilians were killed and tens of thousands displaced. The University of Panama’s seismograph marked 442 major explosions in the first 12 hours of the invasion, about one major bomb blast every two minutes. Fires engulfed the mostly wooden homes, destroying about 4,000 residences. Some residents began to call El Chorrillo “Guernica” or “little Hiroshima.” Shortly after hostilities ended, bulldozers excavated mass graves and shoveled in the bodies. “Buried like dogs,” said the mother of one of the civilian dead.
  • The campaign to capture Noriega, however, didn’t start with grand ambitions. For years, Panama’s corrupt and brutal dictator had been an ally of the United States, providing such important services that the Carter administration in 1979 blocked a federal prosecutor from indicting him on drug charges. He was a CIA asset, and, in the 1980s, a key player in the shadowy network of anti-communists, tyrants, and drug runners who made up what would become Iran-Contra (the conspiracy involving President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council to sell high-tech missiles to the ayatollahs in Iran and then divert their payments to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua in order to destabilize the Sandinista government there). Much of the illegal funding raised to support the Contras was routed through Panama. Noriega’s usefulness to Washington came to an end in 1986, after journalist Seymour Hersh published an investigation in The New York Times linking him to drug trafficking. It turned out that Noriega had been working both sides. He was “our man,” but he was also passing on intelligence to Havana.
  • It was domestic politics that motivated the invasion. When George H.W. Bush was inaugurated president in January 1989, Panama was not high on his foreign-policy agenda. Referring to the process by which Noriega, in less than a year, would become America’s most wanted autocrat, Bush’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said: “I can’t really describe the course of events that led us this way.… Noriega, was he running drugs and stuff? Sure, but so were a lot of other people. Was he thumbing his nose at the United States? Yeah, yeah.” But as Panamanian politics polarized, and Noriega made a power grab, Bush came under intense criticism by the US Congress to act in Panama. Scowcroft recalls the momentum that led to the invasion: “Maybe we were looking for an opportunity to show that we were not as messed up as the Congress kept saying we were, or as timid as a number of people said.” (Emphasis added.) The administration had to find a way to respond, as Scowcroft put it, to the “whole wimp factor.”
  • In the mythology of American militarism that has taken hold since George W. Bush’s disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—and now with Donald Trump’s supposed recklessness—George H.W. Bush is often held up as a paragon of prudence. GHWB was a realist and his circumscribed 1991 Gulf War was a “war of necessity,” while his son’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic “war of choice.” But it was Bush senior who first rolled out a “freedom agenda” to legitimize the illegal invasion of Panama. The fall of the Berlin Wall, just a month before the invasion, provided the larger international context. Paradoxically, as the Soviet Union’s influence in its backyard (Eastern Europe) unraveled, it left Washington with more room to maneuver in its backyard (Latin America). The collapse of Soviet-style Communism also gave the White House an opportunity to go on the ideological and moral offense. In his December 20 address to the nation announcing the invasion, George H.W. Bush gave “democracy” as his second reason for going to war, just behind safeguarding American lives but ahead of combating drug trafficking or protecting the Panama Canal. By the next day, at a press conference, democracy had leapt to the top of the list, and so the president began his opening remarks this way: “Our efforts to support the democratic processes in Panama and to ensure continued safety of American citizens is now moving into its second day.” George Will, the conservative pundit, was quick to realize the significance of this new post–Cold War rationale for military action. In a syndicated column headlined, “Drugs and Canal Are Secondary: Restoring Democracy Was Reason Enough to Act,” he praised the invasion for “stressing…the restoration of democracy,” adding that, by doing so, “the president put himself squarely in a tradition with a distinguished pedigree. It holds that America’s fundamental national interest is to be America, and the nation’s identity (its sense of its self, its peculiar purposefulness) is inseparable from a commitment to the spread—not the aggressive universalization, but the civilized advancement—of the proposition to which we, unique among nations, are, as the greatest American said, dedicated.”
  • Here’s what George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering, said about Operation Just Cause, as the Panama invasion was called: “Having used force in Panama…there was a propensity in Washington to think that force could provide a result more rapidly, more effectively, more surgically than diplomacy.” The easy capture of Noriega meant “the notion that the international community had to be engaged…was ignored.” “Iraq in 2003 was all of that shortsightedness in spades,” Pickering said. “We were going to do it all ourselves.” And we did.

According to James Mann in his history of Bush’s war cabinet, Operation Just Cause helped to “overcome resistance within the Pentagon itself to the use of force,” thus serving as a warm-up act to the first Gulf War, illustrating how “realism” and “idealism” aren’t opposing values in US diplomacy, but rather feed off each other, creating a self-propelling cycle of justification for militarism. It brought together the so-called neocons, like Dick Cheney, and the supposed “realists,” like Colin Powell. As GHWB’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, Powell was hot for getting Noriega. In discussions leading up to the invasion, he advocated forcefully for military action. Powell, despite coming to be associated with the need to have an “exit strategy” for military actions, let the capture of Noriega go to his head. It was he who pushed for a more exalted name to brand the war with, one that undermined the very idea of those “limits” he was theoretically trying to establish. Following Pentagon practice, the operational plan to capture Noriega was to go by the meaningless name of “Blue Spoon.” That, Powell wrote in My American Journey, was “hardly a rousing call to arms.… [So] we kicked around a number of ideas and finally settled on…Just Cause. Along with the inspirational ring, I liked something else about it. Even our severest critics would have to utter ‘Just Cause’ while denouncing us.”

Since the pursuit of justice is infinite, it’s hard to see what your exit strategy is once you claim it as your “cause.”

Greg Grandin

Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His most recent book is, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman. His previous books include, The Empire of Necessity:  Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World and Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

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