FOR A FLEETING MOMENT 20 years ago, the United States had the chance to become a normal nation again. From World War II through the collapse of European communism in 1989, America had been in a state of perpetual war, hot or cold. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of that could have changed. There were no more monsters to destroy, no Nazi war machine or global communist conspiracy. For the first time in half a century, the industrialized world was at peace.
Then in December 1989, America went to war again--this time not against Hitler or Moscow's proxies but with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Tensions between George H.W. Bush's administration and Noriega's government had been mounting for some time and climaxed when a scuffle with Panamanian troops left an American military officer dead. On Dec. 20, U.S. forces moved to oust and arrest Noriega. Operation Just Cause, as the invasion was called, came less than a month after the Berlin Wall fell, and it set America on a renewed path of intervention. The prospect of reducing American military involvement in other nations' affairs slipped away, thanks to the precedent set in Panama.
How real was the opportunity to change American foreign policy at that point? Real enough to worry the political class. Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop lamented in 1989 that there was growing pressure to cut the military budget and that Congress was being overwhelmed by a "1935-style isolationism." But the invasion of Panama signaled that Washington was not going to pursue even a slightly more restrained foreign policy.
That the U.S. would topple the government of a neighbor to the south was hardly unprecedented, of course. The United States had invaded small Caribbean and Central American countries on numerous occasions throughout the 20th century. Indeed, before the onset of Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s, Washington routinely overthrew regimes it disliked.
During the Cold War, however, such operations always had a connection to the struggle to keep Soviet influence out of the Western Hemisphere. The CIA-orchestrated coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the military occupations of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983 all matched that description. Whatever other motives may have been involved, the Cold War provided the indispensable justification for intervention. And for all the rhetoric about democracy and human rights that U.S. presidents employed during the struggle against communism, there was no indication that Washington would later revert to the practice of coercing Latin American countries merely, in Woodrow Wilson's infamous words, to teach those societies "to elect good men." Thus the invasion of Panama seemed a noticeable departure. Odious though he may have been, Noriega was never a Soviet stooge.
The motives that President Bush cited for the Panama intervention foreshadowed the rationales for nation-building and so-called humanitarian missions that would recur frequently over the next two decades. Among other goals, the president said, the invasion aimed to "defend democracy in Panama." He expressed hope "that the people of Panama will put this dark chapter of dictatorship behind them and move forward as citizens of a democratic Panama." Bush emphasized that "the Panamanian people want democracy, peace, and a chance for better life in dignity and freedom. The people of the United States seek only to support them in pursuit of these noble goals"--apparently with U.S. troops, if necessary.
Questions immediately arose in the media and elsewhere as to whether the Panama mission was an isolated example--or whether it was a template for a new American global strategy. Time correspondent George J. Church asked the question that was on many minds: "Does this suggest a new post-cold war foreign policy that casts the U.S. as a different kind of global policeman, acting to save democracy rather than to stop Soviet expansionism? …