Greg Grandin in Salon:
Operation Just Cause was carried out unilaterally, sanctioned neither by the United Nations nor the Organization of American States (OAS). In addition, the invasion was the first post-Cold War military operation justified in the name of democracy — “militant democracy,” as George Will approvingly called what the Pentagon would unilaterally install in Panama.
The campaign to capture Noriega, however, didn’t start with such grand ambitions. For years, as Saddam Hussein had been Washington’s man in Iraq, so Noriega was a CIA asset and Washington ally in Panama. He was a key player in the shadowy network of anti-communists, tyrants, and drug runners that made up what would become Iran-Contra. That, in case you’ve forgotten, was a conspiracy involving President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council to sell high-tech missiles to the Ayatollahs in Iran and then divert their payments to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua in order to destabilize the Sandinista government there. Noriega’s usefulness to Washington came to an end in 1986, after journalist Seymour Hersh published an investigation in the New York Times linking him to drug trafficking. It turned out that the Panamanian autocrat had been working both sides. He was “our man,” but apparently was also passing on intelligence about us to Cuba.
Still, when George H.W. Bush was inaugurated president in January 1989, Panama was not high on his foreign policy agenda. Referring to the process by which Noriega, in less than a year, would become America’s most wanted autocrat, Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said: “I can’t really describe the course of events that led us this way… Noriega, was he running drugs and stuff? Sure, but so were a lot of other people. Was he thumbing his nose at the United States? Yeah, yeah.”
Read the full article here.