Twenty years ago this week, at the culmination of the U.S. invasion of Panama, General Manuel Antonio Noriega was seized and taken in shackles to Miami. Eventually, the Panamanian strongman was convicted on federal drug conspiracy charges for supporting the Medellin cocaine cartel’s shipments to the U.S.
Noriega, 75, has served his sentence and is still jailed in Miami, awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision on a possible extradition to France.
From today’s vantage point, after a failed war on drugs and the unjustified invasion of Iraq, Noriega, no saint, seems a minor character in a larger game. Panama, along with the Grenada invasion before it,
was a practice run for manipulating the news, selling military action to the public and promoting future military adventures.
Then-President George H.W. Bush justified the U.S. invasion of Panama in various questionable ways, including the charge that Noriega had subverted democracy by faking the 1989 elections — which was true. [Noriega learned all about political forgery from his former American intelligence community teachers, who had pushed through fraudulent elections in Panama five years earlier.]
Bush also claimed that Panama under Noriega represented a threat to American security, that Noriega had declared war on the United States and that Noriega had threatened to block the Panama Canal. These were charges with scant evidence, at best. They emanated from the mouths of U.S. officials — a number of whom would go on to have a role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, including Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Elliot Abrams and Richard Perle.
The real reason for the decision to invade Panama lies closer to events surrounding the U.S. war in Central America. Noriega, once a U.S. Intelligence asset, had refused to play ball with the Reagan and Bush administrations by offering little assistance in the counterinsurgency against Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. He also neglected to support El Salvador’s right-wing military.
The drug conviction against Noriega was accomplished with the use of two dozen convicted drug dealers, who were freed from jail under plea bargains in return for testifying against Noriega, with whom they had never had any contact.
Seen now in the light of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Panama invasion and Noriega prosecution make more sense. Noriega and Saddam Hussein were U.S. assets and clients, who fell from grace when their usefulness expired. Once the unsavory leaders had been suitably demonized, policymakers went about molding reality to the charges unleashed against them.
In the case of Panama, Noriega supposedly was shipping cocaine to our shores. That rarely, if ever, happened — though all the while, cocaine was entering the United States through Central America and Mexico.
Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein became the falsified apostle of mass destruction, allegedly seeking uranium supplies he already had and couldn’t use. [See my introduction and afterward to Noriega’s political memoir. America’s Prisoner, and my book, The Italian Letter, written with Knut Royce, about the Iraq War, focusing on yellow cake and weapons of mass destruction.]
As for Noriega’s fate, it seems unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court will set him free to return to Panama, as he and the Panamanian government want. The French extradition request for Noriega was little more than an effort by President Nicolas Sarkozy to mend fences at the time with President George W. Bush after France declined support for the Iraq invasion.
The Panama invasion was front-page news for a short while 20 years ago, but it was relegated to the back pages by the first Gulf War less than a year later, and by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
There were great differences between the use of force in Panama and the forays into the Middle East. No oil was at stake in Panama, no insurgency developed in the aftermath of that invasion and the loss of life was
relatively low –- 25 American soldiers and an unknown number of Panamanians (estimates range from the hundreds to several thousand.)
But I always recall a comment by a Human Rights Watch official which can be applied to Iraq just as well. “It’s not a question of how many people died, but of why anyone died at all.”
– Peter Eisner