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How to Depose a Dictator

On this date, twenty-five years ago, the United States invaded Panama in order to remove a dictator and capture a drug kingpin. The intervention was the largest American military operation since the war in Vietnam. In short order, it was dwarfed by the far larger and more consequential American intervention in the Persian Gulf.

Two and a half decades later, it is easy to forget the US invasion of Panama. Unlike more recent interventions, this one was short and successful. The serious fighting was over in a matter of hours and though Noriega eluded immediate capture, he eventually surrendered to US forces and went on trial for drug offenses in Florida. Duly elected Panamanian officials took office and Americans went back to ignoring the tiny country in Central America that is home to the canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Though brief in duration, the American military operation in Panama was years in the making. Many people were involved in Manuel Noriega’s gradual transition from “our man in Panama” to “public enemy No. 1.”

His downfall began, as many downfalls do, on the front pages of the New York Times. In 1986, Seymour Hersh wrote a series of articles about the Panamanian leader’s connections to the drug trade, the assassination of a prominent political opponent and other crimes. Noriega’s reputation never recovered from the exposure of this information.

In 1987, the Reagan administration routinely asked Congress to waive the imposition of sanctions on Panama because it was one of the nations making progress in the war on drugs. Jessie Helms and John Kerry—a senatorial odd couple—fought the presidential waiver and very nearly won a reversal of it. Along the way they held hearings and gave speeches that further damaged Noriega’s standing in American public opinion.

Then the lawyers took over.

In Florida, two federal prosecutors independently pursuing drug trafficking and money laundering cases secured evidence of Noriega’s involvement and indicted the foreign leader.

Those indictments effectively ended normal relations between the United States and the Noriega-controlled government. The Reagan administration suspended military assistance to Panama and later cut off all US aid. When the elected president in Panama tried to fire Noriega as commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces, Noriega fired the president instead, putting one of his cronies in the executive office. Lawsuits in the United States, filed on behalf of the deposed president, froze valuable assets and created financial stress in Panama. Things got worse when the Reagan administration announced that revenue collected from canal transits would be put in escrow.

By 1988, nearly everyone in the Reagan administration agreed that Noriega had to go. They disagreed about how to do it. Some recommended military action, but Reagan rejected that option. Instead, the US encouraged coups against Noriega and offered to drop the Florida indictments in exchange for a voluntary resignation. That option was rejected by Noriega and opposed by Vice President George Bush campaigning for his own term in the White House.

When Bush became president, Noriega was a nagging problem that had to be addressed. A rigged election in Panama, carefully watched by international monitors, made matters worse. When a picture of the bloodied face of a vice presidential candidate beaten by Noriega’s thugs was seen around the world, the last vestiges of support for the Panamanian leader crumbled.

The new Bush administration was later embarrassed when a coup attempt against Noriega failed because they were slow to recognize its prospects for success. After the failed coup, the Bush team was determined not to miss the next opportunity to depose the dictator.

That opportunity came when Noriega’s troops shot an American serviceman in a car driving away from a Panama City roadblock. A US naval officer and his wife witnessed the shooting and were detained by Panamanians who beat the officer and harassed his wife. When Bush heard these details at a weekend meeting, he ordered a full-scale invasion of Panama to capture Noriega and neutralize loyal military units.

The American invasion of Panama in 1989 was a model US intervention. It was carried out after sanctions and other options had been tried and long after public and congressional opinion had concluded that the Panamanian dictator was a worthy target for removal from office. The invasion involved a relatively large military force that quickly overwhelmed opponents and returned to American bases once the mission was complete. Of course, the unique advantages created by America’s long administration of the Canal Zone made the Panamanian intervention easier than those in distant and unfamiliar lands. But even with those advantages, interventions are difficult operations.

Today it is worth remembering that sometimes we do them well.

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