Saving Hypocrisy in Panama: Bush's Splendid Little War

By Barnet, Richard J. | The Nation, January 22, 1990 | Go to article overview

Saving Hypocrisy in Panama: Bush's Splendid Little War


Barnet, Richard J., The Nation


BUSH'S SPLENDID LITTLE WAR It was a made-to-order occasion for muscle flexing: a central-casting villain, with a weakness for drugs, voodoo, pornography and pictures of Hitler, who made clumsy threats and shed American blood; a relatively low-cost military operations to convince taxpayers that the $300 billion military budgets of recent years actually buy something you can use; a military victory for a commander in chief who is still suspected of wimpishness; and a glorious moment in the war against drugs--Bush finally got his man.

At any time in the 1980s the U.S. invasion of Panama would have looked like a throwback to the era of gunboat diplomacy. But as 1989, that extraordinary year, was about to be added to the history books, this unilateral use of force without even the fig leaf of legality that Ronald Reagan's spin doctors contrived for the Grenada invasion struck a defiantly anachronistic note. Shelling civilian neighborhoods in search of the thug who was once a prize asset of the Central Intelligence Agency was not without historical precedent, but in the revolutionary year just ended the whirlwind invasion collided head-on with the fresh breezes of peaceful change and democracy blowing in from across the Atlantic.

In 1989 people in Eastern Europe, in an extraordinary display of the courage of nonviolence, threw off the shackles of repressive rule. Even as talk of secession spread within the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev sent no tanks to what used to be called its satellites. In this historic moment President Bush restored "peace and democracy" in the so-called U.S. backyard by shedding blood--at least twenty-four American soldiers and hundreds of Panamanian civilians died--all the while disregarding the world's opposition to the action.

Nineteen eighty-nine, like 1789, 1917, 1968 and other evocative dates of modern history, will be remembered because millions of people acted in ways that transformed the way we look at politics. In 1989 the myth on which Jeane Kirkpatrick built a second career--that Communist governments cannot be reformed or overthrown by their people--was confirmed as mere right-wing ideology. But the Bush Administration, while celebrating the democratic revolution in Eastern Europe, had so little faith in the people of Panama that it installed the elected Government at gunpoint. In the process it made clear, as it had in the Philippines when U.S. planes scared off the plotters against Corazon Aquino, that the government was utterly dependent on American military power. It may be true, as news reports suggest, that all Panamanians except Noriega's henchmen are elated at being in U.S. receivership, but the memory of the invasion will feed anti-Americanism all over Latin America long after the former U.S. protege is forgotten.

Members of Congress applauded this latest presidential war or elected to remain silent. Only Charles Rangel, Ted Weiss, Don Edwards and a few others dared to act like legislators and raise some of the legal, moral and practical objections that the news media almost totally ignored.

The network pundits and most editorial writers accepted Bush's premises justifying the Crusade for a Democratic and Drug-Free Hemisphere. The press told the American people once again that their nation was "standing tall," but the rest of the world believes that the spasm of violence in Panama indicates the reverse. The invasion did not impress the industrial nations with whom the United States will have to conduct its most important negotiations in the 1990s; the invasion was a show of impotence. Unable to use its still-considerable political and economic power in the hemisphere to get rid of a clever, outrageous con artist, the United States stage a blunderbuss attack with a heavy loss of civilian lives and property. Still remarkably passive and indecisive about the future arms levels and military arrangements it would like to see or about the future of Europe over which the nation fought to world wars, President Bush committed the power of the United States to a non-solution of a third-order problem. …

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