A simple assassination would have been a lot cleaner. Instead, President George Bush launched a 25,000-person military invasion that killed hundreds of Panamanians and 26 U.S. citizens, left thousands maimed or homeless, brought condemnation in world opinion, and climaxed with the unprecedented spectacle of a foreign ruler flown in shackles to stand trial in the United States.
Why not just send a hit squad after the despised Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega? Because that would be immoral? Come now, what’s immoral-killing one murderous despot or hundreds of innocent young soldiers and civilians?
No, the reason we don’t assassinate foreign tyrants any more is Realpolitik: It would set a precedent for our enemies, the baleful consequences of which a U.S. president can readily appreciate.
So, in hopes of hitting Muammar al-Qaddafi, then President Ronald Reagan sends 18 bombers that miss Qaddafi but kill his 15-month-old adopted daughter and others. To get Noriega, President Bush opts for deaths by the hundreds.
And among the president’s justifications, he lists putting this one man on trial-not in Panama for crimes against his own people, but in Florida for the same drug trafficking that the CIA condoned when Noriega was a U.S. "asset."
The policy against assassinations is sound. And the reasons for it should give pause to those who so contemptuously brush aside concerns about the casual trampling of international law that attended the president’s glorious little war.
Violations of international law set precedents, too, for every tinpot dictator or demagogue with aggressive designs against neighbors or U.S. citizens abroad. Witness Iran’s aping of a Justice Department legal opinion last year, when that country authorized the arrest anywhere in the world of Americans who damage Iranian interests.
To be sure, the rules against unilateral use of military force have been more an aspiration than a reality since the Cold War began. And there may have been some moral and policy reasons for removing Noriega from power.
But there was no justification in policy or law for shipping him to face drug charges in Florida. That was unnecessary to lance the boil in Panama and more reminiscent of the arrogance of imperial Rome than of the best traditions of the United States.
No foreign ruler should be deposed by and then criminally charged in the United States, except possibly for the wanton murder of U.S. citizens. Noriega should be tried in Panama for crimes against his own people.
With the Cold War ending and the Soviet Union blessing-for now-the demise of the communist regimes it installed in Eastern Europe, we should be trying to breathe new life into international law, not casually trashing it.
Instead, the Bush administration handled its Panama adventure in a way that suggested a jingoistic reversion to gunboat diplomacy, driven by domestic political calculations and marketed as a crusade for democracy.
The administration’s bully-boy tactics and swaggering rhetoric spoke more loudly than did its lip service to international law: U.S. troops ransacking the home of the Nicaraguan ambassador to Panama in violation of diplomatic immunity ("a screw up." President Bush later averred, with typical aplomb) and bombarding the Vatican Embassy, where Noriega had taken refuge, with rock music: Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater boasting of a "political jackpot."
While dispatching the national security adviser to toast Chinese Communist rulers who have the blood of democracy demonstrators on their hands, the administration sends the 82nd Airborne to export democracy across the Caribbean.
President Bush and his aides cited four main bases for the invasion: protecting U.S. lives, restoring democracy, defending the Panama Canal, and apprehending the indicted drug trafficker who happened to be Panama’s ruler.
Like circus masters trying to wedge an elephant into a tutu, State Department lawyers cobbled together the usual disingenuous patchwork of legal ratiocinations to tailor the invasion to the rules against unilateral use of military force found in the charters of the United Nations and the Organisation of American States.
Protecting U.S. lives? The U.N. Charter bars unilateral use of force except in self-defense against "armed attack." The shooting death of one Marine, the boating of a Navy lieutenant, and the sexual threatening of his wife were grievous provocations, but hardly an armed attack. Nor was Noriega’s idiotic declaration of "a state of war.”
A proportionate response would have been to pull U.S. troops back to the Canal Zone, put them on defensive alert, and demand immediate steps by Noriega to end the harassment.
Restoring democracy? A worthy objective, but not a legal justification. The invasion and the installation of a new government flout both the U.N. Charter and OAS Charter provisions stating that no nation "has the right to intervene. directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state" or to occupy its territory "even temporarily."
Protecting the canal? Noriega never threatened it. In any event, the Panama Canal agreements rule out any "right of intervention of the United States in the internal affairs of Panama" and any actions "directed against [Panama’s] territorial integrity or political independence."
Finally, the suggestion that a bloody invasion could be justified to catch one alleged drug suspect is obscene nonsense. Far from vindicating Operation "Just Cause," the bringing of Noriega to the United States for trial in itself trampled international law. The administration’s primary legal response to such complaints is that international law does not matter.
Last year the Justice Department found that the FBI and the military are entitled as a matter of domestic law to grab criminal suspects in any nation, with or without that nation’s consent. Once the suspect is here, the courts disregard the violations of international law that were committed to capture him. Checkmate.
All this does not necessarily mean that using such military force as was necessary to remove Noriega from power was wrong. The policy case is far more persuasive than the legal case, given the Panamanians’ seemingly overwhelming approval of their liberation and the fortuity that the apparent victors in last May’s presidential election were on hand to bless the invasion and take office.
But even if Panama can be set on a healthy enough course to justify the bloodshed and the damage to international law and our relations with Latin America, the dignity, restraint, and decent respect for the opinions of humanity that should accompany any use of military force were sorely lacking.
As for Noriega, the right thing to do would be to put him on the next plane to Panama. The new government may come to realize that its apparent preference for having him tried and jailed by Uncle Sam carries the implication that it is a puppet unable to manage its own affairs.
President Bush and his people, however, seem set on having their judicial drama, replete with the elaborate trappings of legal correctness that were so absent in bringing Noriega here.
So let the show go on. Some good may come of it: Perhaps Noriega’s shifting pack of defense lawyers will dig up information about his past associations with George Bush and the CIA that the public ought to know.
And by the time it’s over, perhaps, someone wise will be in charge, someone who will send Noriega back to Panama where he belongs.