An American prospective of the Panama Invasion

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Introduction

20th December, 1989. President George Bush orders 26,000 US troops into military invasion of Panama in what was known as the “Operation Just Cause” (Yates, 2008). The United States based the invasion of Panama on the need to apprehend General Noriega and protect Americans living in Panama. This discussion analyses the scope of reasons behind the justification for the military action by the US in Panama. The paper directs its focus on the things that the US wanted to accomplish through invading Panama, the strategies employed by the US to accomplish the invasion and the resources used by the US in facilitating the invasion of Panama. These factors sum up the ends, ways and means of the US invasion of panama. In light of the events that characterized the invasion, this discussion includes the risks of the invasion and whether the risks were recognized. Considering the extreme nature of the invasion as will be portrayed in this discussion, the paper labors to explain that while the U.S. Invasion of Panama broke its own government policy, they had the right to defend democracy and safeguard the lives of U.S citizens in Panama.

Discussion

In many ways, the activities of the US in Panama were considered as violations of the stipulations on international law. The US perspective on Panama before the invasion was based on benign neglect. This is highlighted by Conniff (2012) in the book Panama and the United States: The End of the Alliance, which analyzed the depth of the underlying issues that led to the invasion of Panama by the US. According to Conniff (2012), President Bush justified the 1989 invasion by giving four reasons, including ensuring the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaty, safeguarding the lives of the American citizens in Panama, apprehending Manuel Noriega and defending democracy in Panama.

At the bottom of the causative factors that spearheaded the invasion was the ideological and value conflict between Noriega and the US. In 1972, writes, Noriega had ascended to prominence within the Panamanian ranks, hence the position he held at the helm of the Panama military intelligence. Primarily, the US held policy conflicts against Noriega, which stemmed from the factional representation in the diverse agencies and branches of government. Besides, the ascendance of Noriega to the military intelligence leadership position amidst his corrupt and murderous nature was considered as a threat to the interests of the US in Panama. Noriega was allegedly involved in different illegal activities that threatened the position of the US in the international balance of power. The misdeeds of Noriega represented a sharp contrast of the values and ideologies that were identifiable with the US, more so with respect to the stability that was required of the Panama Canal.

Inasmuch as Noriega’s misdeeds were an impediment to the integrity of the activities of the US in Panama, Martz (1995) argues that the presence of Noriega in the Panamanian military intelligence hindered the prospects of US activities in Panama. As such, the 1989 invasion of Panama made clear the interests that the US had in the region. In 1977, the US and Panama signed the Panama Canal Treaty, which granted the US the primary responsibility of defending the canal and deploying troops to avert any threats on the Panamanian territory. Also envisaged in the treaty was the period of US responsibility, which was to end in 1999.

The Panama Canal was the primary source of interest that defined the US activities in Panama. This treaty provided the US with extraterritorial rights over the Canal Zone, with scholars such as LeFeber (1989) stating that the mandate given to the US by Panama Canal Treaty made Panama a colony of the US. The pronunciation of instability and insecurity of the Panama Canal by President Bush, allegedly propagated by General Noriega, appeared to endanger the Canal Zone, which was under the jurisdiction of the US. The Panama Canal, therefore, was the sole interest that the US had in Panama.

The alleged misdeeds of General Noriega were expounded in the use of the Panama Canal to facilitate drug trafficking, among other illegal activities. Being the head of the military intelligence, Noriega enjoyed dominance over several branches and agencies of government. Accusations from Venezuela and Ecuador compounded the earlier claims by the US that Noriega promoted and participated in illegal activities. As of February 1988, Conniff (2012) writes, the US DEA had indicted Noriega on drug related charges. In addition, widespread local rebellion following the undisputed elections was met by political killings that persuaded the US into colluding that Noriega was unpopular among the Panamanians. This was among the reasons why the US deemed it fit to launch an invasion of Panama to oust Noriega out of office.

As at the time President Bush called for the invasion, Panama played host to over 35,000 US citizens. A week prior to the invasion pronunciation, the US highlighted the terrorizing and ruthless killings of unarmed US soldiers in an event that demonstrated the resolve by Noriega to declare war against the US. This was a premeditated act of aggression against the US, which further strengthened the claims of harassment of the US military personnel by the army controlled by Noriega. The acts of aggression meted against the US military in Panama were sufficient reason, according to President Bush, to protect the American nationals in Panama whose lives were endangered by the atrocities of Noriega. Therefore, the US invasion of Panama was aimed at protecting the Americans living in Panama.

In 1984, a democratic experiment as introduced in Panama. This experiment was aimed at promoting electoral justice and promoting the prevalence of rule of law in Panama. However, the activities leading to the May 1989 elections were considered as injurious to the progress realized towards achieving the successes of the democratic experiment. The US claimed that Noriega’s thugs attacked rival presidential candidates, while the opposition was suppressed though politically related killings. The US invaded Panama to prevent the ultimate destruction of the nascent democracy in Panama. As Rottman and Volstad (1991) postulate, the US considered the actions of Noriega as totalitarian, hence using this opportunity to reinforce democracy in Panama. President Bush, furthermore, argued that this intervention would go a long way in stopping the various human rights violations that were being experienced in Panama in the wake of the fraudulent elections.

The US came under sharp criticism for its activities in Panama. The UN General Assembly condemned the invasion just nine days after the “Operation Just Cause” began, terming it as a violation of international law. The Organization of American States also condemned the invasion two days after its declaration. As Rottman and Volstad (1991) write, US allies such as Japan and Libya continued to extend loans to Panama amidst the economic sanctions imposed on Panama by the US. The discord between the US and its allies was evidenced in the withdrawal of the US ambassador to Peru pending the decision of the US to call off the invasion.

There are several strategies that the US employed in its bid to accomplish the invasion of Panama. The relations between Panama and the US began deteriorating after the death of General Torrijos in 1981. The US Senate played a significant diplomatic role in the removal of General Noriega. In 1987, the Senate called for hearings to investigate the claims of electoral fraud, murder and drug trafficking leveled against Noriega. Consequently, to federal indictments were handed down against Noriega for drug trafficking. Similarly, the US imposed travel bans on senior government officials working under the oppressive regime of Noriega.

Other than diplomatic strategies, the US depended on strategic communications to facilitate the invasion of Panama. The US was aware of the influence that Noriega commanded within the military owing to the leadership position he held in the intelligence unit. In 1987, the US and Panama government officials held secret meetings to chart a way through which General Noriega could be apprehended. From these meetings, it emerged that Noriega had secret documents that would implicate US officials in the money laundering and drug trafficking activities that the US purported to fight. In addition, the US acquired information from former allies and aides of Noriega including Jose Blandon, who acted as an intelligence advisor and personal aide to Noriega.

Military action was inevitable with the decision by President Bush to order an increase in the number of troops in Panama. In December 1989, the Bush administration embarked on military action against Noriega. The seeds of military invasion of Panama, as demonstrated by Martz (1995), are traceable back to the years of President Reagan, though these measures were delayed until the spring of 1989 when the Bush administration took the dramatic steps that bore the “Operation Just Cause”. This was a war fought by the US against the Panama Defense Forces (PDF). The US banked on its military bases along the Panama Canal to launch ground and air combats. As documented by Yates (2008), over 27,000 US troops were deployed in Panama, with 300 aircrafts used to facilitate the invasion.

With the increased hard line position held by Noriega, The US employed economic sanctions against Panama. The Senate protested and demanded for restitution following the gang attacks on US embassies, consulates and service buildings in Panama. As a consequence, the US suspended any aid given to Panama, including the military protection that was envisaged in the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977. The US eliminated the Panama sugar quota and closed the AID offices in December 1987 to destabilize General Noriega. The intensity of the economic sanctions was felt in 1988, when Washington discontinued the Panama Canal payments and suspended the trade preferences (Rottman & Volstad, 1991). Besides, Washington D.C. held up international bank transfers into Panama and prevented the US companies operating in Panama from paying local taxes. Moreover, the US stopped the shipments of dollars, thus creating a cash flow crisis whose effect was felt on the Panamanian currency.

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The US invasion of Panama exposed the strengths and weaknesses of the US military. However, the US proved that it had the capability to invade Panama, and succeed in its quest for invasion. The US deployed many troops to fight the opponent, as the scope of army personnel included the army, navy and air force. Besides, the US invested adequate amounts of financial resource to sustain the military activities in Panama. These activities were further backed up by the US media, which justified the military invasion into Panama.

However, the US overlooked significant resources such as conflict resolution and international mediation in its efforts to remove general Noriega. In the wake of the looming conflict, the US ought to have embarked on dialogue with Noriega to ascertain the validity of the claims and seeks for peaceful transition and realization of democracy. Similarly, the US should have engaged the international community to oversee the atrocities committed by Noriega in Panama. Through this involvement, mediation would have been considered, failure to which larger economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed on Panama. Rather than using massive human capital to fight, the US should have used technology. This would have enabled the US to target specific hideouts of Noriega and his sympathizers. Besides, technology would minimize the prevalence of civilian deaths as was the case in the invasion. This represents the contrast between the resources and the accomplishment of “Operation Just Cause”.

The decision by the US to invade Panama was made solely by the US Senate, hence ignoring the principles of military intervention as stipulated by the UN. As argued by Conniff (2012), the US used its might and position on the global political index to facilitate the invasion. The risk of this activity is that it would have encouraged the culture of impunity for the global superpowers who would find it comfortable and normal to violate the principles of international law.

Conclusion

The action by President Bush to legitimize the US invasion of Panama is considered as a response to the war declaration against the US by Noriega. According to Martz (1995), several scholars have termed the processes that ensued after the declaration of war against Panama as some of the events that shaped the nature of international relations between the US and other Latin nations. The US held policy conflicts against Noriega, which stemmed from the factional representation in the diverse agencies and branches of government. The ascendance of Noriega to the military intelligence leadership position amidst his corrupt and murderous nature was considered as a threat to the interests of the US in Panama. Noriega was allegedly involved in different illegal activities that threatened the position of the US in the international balance of power. The misdeeds of Noriega represented a sharp contrast of the values and ideologies that were identifiable with the US.

As this paper contends, the military intervention by the US in Panama has contributed largely to the study of consistencies, or lack thereof, of the application of military action with respect to international protocol. In conclusion, the U.S. Invasion of Panama broke its own government policy, they had the right to defend democracy and safeguard the lives of U.S citizens in Panama.

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  1. Conniff, M. (2012). Panama and the United States: The End of the Alliance (3rd Ed.). Athens (Ga.): University of Georgia Press.
  2. LeFeber, W. (1989). The Panama Canal (1st Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Martz, J. (1995). United States Policy in Latin America: A Decade of Crisis and Challenge (1st Ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  4. Rottman, G., & Volstad, R. (1991). Panama 1989-90 (1st Ed.). Oxford: Osprey Publishing.
  5. Yates, L. (2008). The U.S. military intervention in Panama (1st Ed.). Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army.
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