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Operation Just Cause: A Historical Analysis

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On September 7, 2007, seventeen years after Manuel Noriega’s violent removal from power in Panama, a legal order for his release was issued in Miami; however, to this day, the former Panamanian strongman remains imprisoned in a Florida jail as both France and Panama battle for him to be extradited to their respective countries. While Noriega awaits certain extradition and another trial at age seventy four, the world only distantly remembers his apprehension in 1989 and perhaps more importantly, the blemish it left on U.S. foreign policy throughout Latin America. In December 1989, President George H.W. Bush decided to forcefully remove Manuel Noriega from Panama to stand trial in the United States for drug trafficking and related charges. The intervention was given the name “Operation Just Cause,” a reference to the anticipated success of this exercise in freeing Panamanians from an evil dictator. But in the view of many, the operation not only broke international law, but severely destabilized Panama- an effect the country still feels to this day. President Bush’s decision to intervene with military force in Panama was a direct result of the crisis created by Noriega’s rise to power, largely as a result of Washington’s backing, and the complex and asymmetrical relationship between the two nations.

Noriega Complicates U.S.-Panama Relations
The United States’ relationship with Panama has been tumultuous for a century. Panamanians, along with the international community, often have questioned the controlling interest the U.S. has had in the country, citing it as a disregard for Panama’s sovereignty. The U.S.’ relationship with Manuel Noriega has been no less conflicted: U.S. interaction with Noriega began when he became a CIA operative while attending the Peruvian military academy in 1967. It was maintained when he was educated at the controversial School of the Americas. During the late 1950s into the 1980s, Noriega was used as an intelligence asset in Latin America, where he provided valuable information to the CIA and helped the U.S. seize numerous large drug shipments. By 1983, Noriega had amassed enough power and influence to appoint himself as General of the Army. During this time, Noriega was well disposed to U.S. interests in Panama.

Noriega provided the U.S. with take-off rights to its SR71 Blackbird high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, which provided valuable intelligence on the U.S.-backed Contra war against the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran war between the rightwing government and the left-leaning FLMN. Noriega, although a drug trafficker himself, also provided information about his rivals’ drug shipments to U.S. DEA officials. In return, Washington was prone to overlook his various seedy activities in Panama. At the end of the 1980’s, enforcement of cross border trafficking became a crucial focus of President Reagan’s War on Drugs and as a result, Panama’s involvement in the drug trade became a key basis for the two nations’ turbulent relations. Noriega’s fall from grace was cemented by his 1988 conviction in absentia on cocaine trafficking charges in a U.S. court.

Crisis! Noriega Declares War
When President George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, he inherited an unruly situation in Panama as Noriega moved to consolidate power, having rigged Panama’s just-concluded presidential elections and having transformed the country’s government into a de facto dictatorship. As the situation continued to deteriorate over the course of 1989, neither the Reagan nor incoming Bush Administration opted for military action and instead chose non-invasive measures, issuing statements including unforgiving rhetoric or actively dropping a series of economic threats. After the United States denounced Noriega’s illegitimate government, President Bush’s policy options narrowed, just as the pressure for him to do something about the Panamanian strongman was building. Many non-military options were considered, but after Panama’s fraudulent elections and several casualties attendant to them, the Bush administration found itself forced to consider military options. Noriega’s aggressive and incendiary rhetoric finally forced the hand of U.S. policy makers. On December 16, 1989, Noriega castigated the United States in his inauguration speech and stated that “relations between the two countries [were] now in a state of war.” (Noriega 1989). “That same day Noriega named himself the Maximum Leader and publicly speculated that someday the “bodies of [his] enemies” would float down the Panama Canal and the people of Panama would win complete control over the waterway” (Cole, Operation Just Cause Panama 1995). The following night, Panamanian forces opened fire on a car carrying four unarmed U.S. servicemen, killing Marine Lieutenant Robert Paz. The rapidly deteriorating situation in Panama officially had turned to a crisis.

The Call for Action
On December 20, 1989 President Bush delivered a state address regarding the situation in Panama. He announced:

    General Noriega’s reckless threats and attacks upon Americans in Panama created an imminent danger to the 35,000 American citizens in Panama. As President, I have no higher obligation than to safeguard the lives of American citizens. And that is why I directed our Armed Forces to protect the lives of American citizens in Panama and to bring General Noriega to justice in the United States.

Thus began Operation Just Cause. Bush further outlined the goals of the operation as the following: “to safeguard the lives of Americans, to defend democracy in Panama, to combat drug trafficking, and to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal treaty.” Many scholars supportive of the Bush administration claim the directive to use force in Panama was ordered only after conditions had worsened to a level at which the safety of American lives was at considerable risk. However, careful analysis shows that although the decision to invade Panama appeared quick and decisive, in reality it involved a complex historical backdrop, long-term planning and was influenced by many important factors not visible at first blush.

Antagonism and Death in Panama
The deteriorating situation in Panama was an important foreign policy issue during the 1988 presidential elections, won by Republican candidate George H.W. Bush. During the race, various media outlets tried to connect Bush and the Republican Party to Noriega. Noriega had worked closely with the Reagan administration and certainly with Bush himself when the latter was the director of the CIA, before serving as Vice President under Reagan. During this period, Noriega attempted to foment working ties with the Republican Party, with the media suggesting that Bush would continue to maintain a close working relationship with the de facto leader. These activities were closely scrutinized within the context of the U.S. presidential race. In response to his perceived support for Noriega, Bush began to distance himself as much as possible from him during his campaign.

The Panamanian Defense Force’s (PDF) October 1989 attempt to overthrow Noriega saw another U.S. foreign policy blunder. Due to Gerald Ford’s ban on assassinating foreign leaders, the U.S. government was not itself involved in staging the coup; however, it did play a role in the botched attempt. When the Bush administration learned of the failed attempt, General Colin Powell ordered SOUTHCOM’s General Thurman “to remove Noriega to a U.S. military base if that could be done,” effectively, if successful, fixing the Noriega problem at that time (Flanagan 29). Noriega, who recognized that the U.S. had encouraged the attempt to remove him from power, proceeded to further antagonize Washington. The Bush administration felt pressure on all sides- for first intervening in the affairs of a sovereign state and then for allowing the coup to fail. Juan Sosa, former Panamanian Ambassador to the U.S. (1987-1989), explains in his book “In Defiance”, “the failed coup also gave rise again to the alleged Bush-Noriega relationship, and the president was strongly criticized… presenting Bush with a potentially serious domestic problem.” The lack of support for the Bush Administration’s indecisive action towards Panama guaranteed that any future decisions made would be under close public scrutiny. Noriega’s declaration of war and the souring of popular opinion toward him led President Bush to seek for a solution to resolve the conflict swiftly and definitively.

Bush and his Military
President Bush’s close relationship with his military advisers shaped policy throughout the decision-making process over what to do about Noriega. Beginning in 1988, when Noriega was first indicted for cocaine trafficking by U.S. federal courts, the Bush Administration started to develop a contingency plan for military action. By December 17, 1989, Powell and Bush’s high-ranking military cronies had developed such a plan that would respond to the president’s needs. At a private Christmas party on December 18, General Powell presented his design for Operation Just Cause, the final strategy of two years of calculated planning to remove Noriega, to President Bush. As General Powell explained the proposed military scenario, Bush quickly made his decision without consulting any of the myriad advisors present, saying, “Okay, let’s do it. The hell with it!’” (Flanagan 53). Bush and his military ‘advisors’, although working at his behest, gave the go ahead for the plan, without regard for standard military procedure. The close relationship between Bush and his advisors was in part responsible for the effortless glide into an interventionist policy towards Panama.

The Media and the Public Turn
After the failed coup in October 1989, and the fact that almost all of the relevant actors in U.S. public life favored a militarized solution to the Noriega problem, the media began to focus on the Bush administration’s shortcomings in Panama. Added to this, Bush feared that the public’s reaction to further negative exposure of the White House’s lack of firmness would hinder his popularity, effectively curtailing his ability to make decisive future decisions and weakening his re-election prospects. Military action would provide a quick resolution to a growing problem. The media’s ability to apply pressure on the Bush administration greatly influenced the timeline under which it operated. Once the Panama situation had reached a critical mass, after even liberal figures such as Senators Dodd, Leahy and Kennedy scored Bush for his drift, the President was left with few options other than to manifest an overt show of U.S. military strength. One of the Bush administration’s grave mistakes at this time was in the creation of a small media pool. The fourteen journalists handpicked by the Department of Defense to cover the invasion, were never allowed anything like the full access promised to them. Army journalists, for the most part, provided coverage of the initial attack by U.S. forces. The appointed media pool, from its more limited vantage point, reported that their treatment by Army brass left them useless.

The Organization of American States (OAS) has often played the role of devil’s advocate to many of the U.S.’ interventionist policies in Latin America and has routinely adopted the use of non-interventionist rhetoric to make its point. According to Juan Sosa, “the Panama crisis presented a situation in which the OAS would have to choose between upholding the principle of nonintervention…or promoting the principle of ‘self-determination’.” After denouncing Panama’s elections as fraudulent, the OAS sent a diplomatic envoy to Panama in July of 1989 to encourage Noriega to step down. The diplomatic mission failed almost immediately, but the OAS continued to vehemently oppose unilateral military action by the U.S in favor of continued diplomacy. Having run out of diplomatic and economic options, Bush decided to disregard international pleas and declared military action as the best available choice.

Operation Just Cause, Successful?
If success is defined as whether or not the outcome of the policy met its original specified goals, then Operation Just Cause was indeed successful. The goals of the Panamanian invasion were to safeguard Americans in Panama, depose Noriega, uphold the treaty of the Panama Canal and make Panama safe for democracy. Noriega was caught on January 3, 1990, a “democracy” of sorts was returned to Panama, the integrity of the treaty regarding the Panama Canal was upheld, and Americans were removed from harm’s way, even if they had never really been in danger.

Unfortunately, success cannot only be defined as the attainment of prescribed goals, but must also include the consequences of the action taken and the quality of those goals. When U.S. troops left Panama, the country was in shambles, countless citizens found themselves homeless, with a government characterized by violence, corruption and an unstable economy. Many have intimated that the U.S. intervened in Panama only to save face and stop Noriega from continuing to thumb his nose at the United States. Others argue that U.S. involvement in Panama was a direct challenge to Panama’s sovereignty and turned out to be an example of contemporary U.S. espousal of the Monroe doctrine. “For the United States it was a difficult decision to act alone, and to use force against a small nation. Stereotypes of old would be revived, and the specter of the ‘big brother’ deciding disputes by force of arms would again be propelled into the politics of the hemisphere” (Sosa 265). Nevertheless, the international community was ignored as the Bush administration pursued a unilateral solution via an old-style invasion. On December 22, 1989, two days after the beginning of Operation Just Cause, the OAS passed a resolution that denounced U.S. military involvement in Panama, citing disrespect for state sovereignty and the unnecessary death of hundreds of Panamanian civilians. Clearly, Operation Just Cause was not so ‘just’ for all parties involved.

Aftermath of the Invasion
Operation Just Cause visited heavy destruction on Panama and its citizens. The human cost of the invasion was grossly underreported by the U.S. military; only when non-governmental agencies completed their own investigation was the true death count, injury count, and property destruction accurately assessed. Physicians for Human Rights reported that “approximately 85% of the Panamanian lives lost during the invasion and its violent aftermath were civilian” (PHR Report Operation Just Cause). Approximately 300 civilians died while 50 military personnel were killed during the invasion. The U.S. government stated that approximately 1,000 Panamanians were injured, while PHR placed the number closer to 3,000. Further, as this number only includes Panamanians that sought treatment in hospitals, it is likely that the number of Panamanian civilians injured during Operation Just Cause was much higher. Another measure of the magnitude of the destruction brought on by the invasion was the number of persons displaced: it is estimated that approximately 15,000 Panamanians lost their homes and businesses. Panama’s troublesome lack of infrastructure and poor economic conditions were only exacerbated by the U.S. invasion. Not until 1993 did Panama’s GDP return to its pre-invasion level, which was still lower than most of Central America. The CIA World Factbook’s entry for Panama in 1993 reported that “The economy thus continues to recover from the crisis that preceded the ouster of Manuel Noriega, even though the government’s structural adjustment program has been hampered by a lack of popular support and a passive administration” (CIA 1993).

Because the first Bush Administration made so many blunders when dealing with the Noriega regime during 1989/1990, Washington owes it to Panama to assist its efforts to extradite Noriega to Panama and not France, if this is desired by Panamanians. The United States should not necessarily allow France to determine Noriega’s fate, when deportation to his native Panama seems a viable solution. Though Operation Just Cause occurred nineteen years ago, the United States has not yet fully resolved the Manuel Noriega case. Now is the time for the U.S. to heal the scar left on Panama by returning Noriega to his homeland so true justice can finally be delivered.