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Evaluation of the Happenings Prior To US Attack on Panama

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Since World War II, the United States Congress has failed to declare war against another state. This is not to say that the nation has been free of aggressive confrontations, however. In many ways, the period after the Second World War has been the bloodiest for the United States, seeing countless minor engagements and large scale invasions across the globe. The justifications for these conflicts have been foggy at best, often the US cites shady reports, uncertain intelligence, and employs patriotic rhetoric to sway its people and to bend international law. Among these events are the infamous invasion of Vietnam on behalf of democracy and the Vietnamese people, the 2003 invasion of Iraq for the stated purpose of removing “weapons of mass destruction” that never existed, and the invasion of Panama in 1989 to “restore democracy” and “protect US citizens. Often, the United States takes upon itself the need to police the world and to bring their brand of democracy to nations everywhere, establishing a pattern of intervention that is both legally and morally questionable. The 1989 Invasion of Panama, sanctioned by former President George H. W. Bush is one such example of American goals pushed with the power of military might.

In the months leading up to the invasion of 1989, Panama and its military dictator, Manual Noriega, had become increasingly hostile towards the United States, true, yet none of their actions constituted a threat worthy of an invasion of 24,000 soldiers (Nanda 297). Prior to the invasion, President Bush announced four aims to justify his invasion of the republic in 1989. As related by Ved Nanda, these aims were “to safeguard the lives of American citizens, to help restore democracy, to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaties, and to bring General Manuel Noriega to justice” (Nanda 294). Most of these justifications revolve around what Michael Walzer, just war philosopher, would call either preemptive strikes or military intervention, both of which he believes are immoral causes for war. The defense of American citizens, however, is an interesting claim, and the context surrounding these claims are worth discussing.

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General Noriega had already proclaimed that Panama was in “a state of war” with the United States though, as of yet, no shots had been fired and no aggressive act had been committed.A state of war is a threatening position to take, particularly against a country with 35,000 citizens residing abroad in the borders of Panama, 12,000 of which were US military personnel. Aggressive threats such as that of Panama in 1989 are the kind of threats that Walzer would see as immoral and, the enactment of these threats would cause damage to American lives and property. An act of aggression against American forces in Panama would possibly require American resistance. Walzer makes no direct claims as to the morality of invasion to protect civilians living abroad, though the protections of innocents is a significant part of his argument. Walzer does say, however, that “aggression justifies…a war of self-defense by the victim and a war of law enforcement by the victim and any other member of international society” (Walzer 62). Potentially, this second stipulation could have been used to justify a US invasion of Panama on behalf of its citizens providing that Panama’s threats were legitimate.

At this time, Noriega had been granted the title “Maximum Leader” and countless new powers as dictator of Panama and yet his aggressive claims did not worry the US government administration. The then Deputy Secretary of State called Panama’s announcements and promotion of General Noriega “a charade and nonsense” and the White House public stated that the military had not changed its alert status as a result of Panama’s declaration. Later, however, when the United States was justifying the invasion, the government cited a report that allegedly informed intelligence officers that General Noriega was “considering” mounting a commando attack against Americans living in a residential neighborhood. This report, however, was said to be less than reliable. Secretary Baker of the United States admitted that he “cannot prove…that this report is reliable” (Nanda 497). In fact, the only validated case of “harassment” on the part of the Panamanians was the death of a US marine on December 15 and, on the part of the Americans, the wounding of a Panamanian police officer at the hands of an officer in the US army. The argument has been made that there was no significant evidence in the US government’s assertions that their citizens were in danger. And yet, Secretary Baker, the same administrator who admitted the strongest report was unreliable, argues that the United States’ actions were warranted in the name of preventing potential travesties. Prevention, that is, a war to prevent an attack is seen by Walzer to be a preemptive strike and, in a sense, an immoral war of aggression.

To begin a war, particularly an invasion near the size of Vietnam, on behalf of preventing danger is problematic. Walzer defines preventive wars as “a war fought to maintain the balance to stop what is thought to be an even distribution of power from shifting into a relation of dominance and inferiority” (Walzer 76). Walzer’s concept of preemptive strikes is usually used in reference to aggressive and invasive states, but it seems, at least on some level, applicable here. By invading Panama to “safeguard American lives” and to, essentially, depose the current government in favor of a more American friendly regime that would uphold the canal treaties and promote democracy, the United States certainly hoped to tip the balance of power, if not to an even distribution, to a position more favorable to the United States. The rationale for preemptive strikes and preventive war is often based on a utilitarian argument, one that presumes that the balance of power preserves peace and that fighting early reduces the cost of defense. This is, in fact, the same logic the Bush administration used when considering the attack, thinking “(1) that the situation would only get worse and (2) that pressures for intervention would ultimately become irresistible. Under such a scenario, acting sooner, rather than later, was a defensible position” (Millet 6). Walzerargues that the acceptance of these presumptions “is dangerous (not useful) and certain to lead to ‘innumerable and fruitless wars’” (Walzer 77). These innumerable and fruitless wars have been seen countless times in recent American history as a result of preemptive invasions in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan that ultimately led to death suffering and, in many cases, elongated conflicts beyond any hope of achieving war aims. The invasion of Panama, though largely a successful invasion, caused the deaths of 26 Americans and more than 700 Panamanians, most of which were civilians (Nanda 497), adding only to the list of America’s numerable and damaging wars. Yet it was self-serving, allowing the US to intervene in Panamanian politics more directly than they had been able to before to install a US-friendly regime in the vital region, securing the Panama Canal and the safety of American nationals.

Thus, the Invasion of Panama can be thought of as less of a preemptive strike against a threat of war and more of an intervention in a foreign state’s policies. Prior to the invasion, the United States had, for some time, been embarked on a political smear campaign, using “economic sanctions, promoting coups within the PDF [Panamanian Defense Forces], and employing threats and bluffs” (Millet 5). It was a cheaper offensive, an attempt to depose Noriega without the use of external military force, admirable in part, perhaps, but not on the whole. Walzer notes early on in his work that independent states have “above all, the rights to territorial integrity and political sovereignty” (Walzer 61), rights that are generally broken by the incursion of another state. It is important to note in this instance that the reign of Noriega was largely illegitimate. In his essay, Nanda says that it is a “well-documented fact that Noriega had climbed to power by the use of strong-arm tactics and remained in power against the clear expression of the will of the Panamanian people” (Nanda 498). It is difficult to argue, then, that Noriega should not have been deposed. It is, however, less defensible to argue that the United States had a moral right to intervene on behalf of democracy in Panama.

Intervention for the sake of toppling an unjust government is permissible in certain situations, but largely Walzer sees intervention as an immoral act, citing John Stuart Mill’s argument on behalf of self-determination. It is Mill’s position, and therefore Walzer’s, that “the members of a political community must seek their own freedom, just as the individual must cultivate his own virtue” (Walzer 87) without external assistance lest their convictions be hurt and their future government be crippled. Though the people of Panama were largely against the rule of General Noriega, they had not yet risen in any significant force to remove him from power. The United States, at least by this justification had no moral basis in depriving Panamanians from their ability to free themselves. There is, however, some basis for external intervention on behalf of freedom according to Walzer. The qualifications are as follows: (1) when the issue is “secession” or “national liberation”, that is, when one group within a set of boundaries is already engaged in a fight to free themselves from the empowered government, (2) when the border has already been crossed (perhaps unjustly) by another power in order to balance the fight, counter intervention, and (3) when the state is engaged in severe violations of human rights that render ideals such as self-determination “cynical and irrelevant” (Walzer 90). At the time of the 1989 invasion, no other state had engaged with Panama, there was no effort for segregation, and Noriega’s rule, though oppressive and counter to democracy, had not yet committed massacres, genocides, or any human rights violation significant enough to warrant intervention based on Walxer’sperameters.

The Invasion of Panama was a war of intervention, one that was done to serve the invaders more so than the people of the oppressed country. Thus, the invasion would have been an immoral act in the eyes of Michael Walzer. Interventions with impure intentions are seemingly more common, particularly for the United States, than those done for “democracy” or for humanitarian purposes. Vietnam was an issue of politics, of the prevention of a contrary political ideal from spreading. Korea was much the same. Iraq and Afghanistan has become a struggle against Islam in the United States more than a “War on Terror” and an attempt to protect precious resources for the West. Panama was much the same, that is, an attempt on the part of the United States to keep Panama and the precious Panama Canal friendly to American interests. Bush’s war aims listed the arrest of General Noriega last on the list, behind the safeguard of American lives, the protection of the Panama Canal treaties, and the protection of democracy, all American needs.

By the time the invasion was finished, President Bush claimed that the administrations goals had been met. The General had been taken into American custody for trial and the lawful winners of the 1989 Panama elections were installed, promising a new regime friendly to American interests in the Panama Canal and the safety of American nationals. While these goals seem idealistic and agreeable, they are not suitable for military action inside the boundaries of a sovereign nation. The most defensible justification for the invasion resides in the claim of “self-defense”, though the example of Panama is a strange case. Here, any defensible self-defense would involve invasion, a military incursion on behalf of countrymen living abroad, an act of aggressive defense. However, the promises of serious Panamanian crimes against Americans, particularly the alleged report of PDF commandos attacking residential citizens, went largely unproven. The one act of war committed by Panama, the slaying of a single American marine, certainly did not call for an invasion on the scale of Vietnam though it certainly appeared to be a principle cause in the mobilization of American troops. On this point, on Bush’s promise to “safeguard American lives” it cannot be said that his intentions were unjust, only that his solution to the tragedy was disproportionate.

His intentions in the arrest of General Noriega, however, were more questionable. It was well known that Noriega was more of a bully than a politician, a man who rose to his power through force rather than through votes. It is also known that he was involved with “arms smuggling, drug trafficking, [and] money laundering” (Gilboa 539). Surely, the most serious of these offenses was the oppression of his people and the suppression of the democratic right to government. Yet, he was brought to trial in the United States for having “conspired to import, distribute and/or manufacture cocaine for sale in the United States” and that he had “conspired to import and/or distribute marijuana” (Sherman 393-4). Bush went in to Panama under the precedent of rescuing the Panamanian people from a corrupt dictator, to “restore democracy” and yet the offenses he was tried for reflect American interests, interests related to, no less, their recent declaration of a War on Drugs. It seems, then, that Bush’s intentions, even, were less than pure. His case for a legitimate attack on Panama is crippled beyond defense.

There was no democratic or moral basis for the invasion of Panama in 1989. Rather, it was a war of American idealism reflected again and again by the nation’s wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in Latin America. The invasion of Panama was not a Cold War invasion. Rather, it represented a turning point in American history as the nation shifted from wars of politics to wars of American interests, the rise of the American Police State that extends its arm and its laws into Latin America, its need for oil in the Middle East, and its own pattern of self-interest around the globe.


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