“Just Cause” and Its Aftermath

With the death of Manuel Noriega, we look back at the bloody 1989 invasion of Panama and the imperial wars that it helped justify.

An American soldier, on a US Army M113, in Panama during Operation Just Cause on December 21, 1989. J. Elliot / US Department of Defense

Twenty-eight years ago, as the Iron Curtain crumbled and liberal intellectuals trumpeted the end of history, a strike force of some thirty thousand American soldiers invaded the small Central American nation of Panama.

They arrived just before Christmas. Before they left in mid-January, as many as 3,500 Panamanians were dead, the capital city was so demolished that locals compared one neighborhood to Hiroshima, and onetime CIA asset Manuel Noriega, the country’s dictator, was in American custody, about to stand trial for drug trafficking.

Noriega spent the rest of his life as an inmate, first in the United States, then in France, and finally in Panama, where he died on Monday. Juan Carlos Varela, Panama’s current president, responded by saying that with Noriega’s death a chapter in his country’s turbulent history had come to a close. But for the US security state, the chapter that began with Noriega’s capture remains wide open.

The invasion of Panama inaugurated a new period of American empire-building. The worst of the Cold War tension finally relieved, conservatives and liberals alike accepted unilateral military intervention as a core feature of American foreign policy, deploying specious appeals to humanitarianism to override historical claims to sovereignty. Today, after successive military interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, as extrajudicial executions are delivered near-daily from a sky cross-crossed by drones, the foreign-policy paradigm initiated in Panama appears durable indeed.

Operation Just Cause

By the time George H. W. Bush slithered out of the vice president’s chambers and into the Oval Office in 1989, his cohort of Washington hawks was already giddy about the possibility of war in Panama. The famous wits at the Pentagon had been chewing the ends of their pencils since at least 1987, brainstorming titles for the eminent conflict.

Full of adrenaline from the Grenada invasion a few years earlier, they churned out a flurry of battle plans. There was the sycophantically named Operation Bushmaster, which called for the refortification of American assets. There were Operations Purple Storm and Sand Flea, which choreographed the confrontation and baited the Panamanian Defense Forces with small provocations. There was Operation Nimrod Dancer, which got American combat boots on the ground. And there was Operation Blind Logic, which, if nothing else, at least succeeded in describing the hardheaded disposition of the foreign-policy establishment.

In 1988, Manuel Noriega was indicted in the United States on federal drug charges, and the Pentagon promptly compiled the so-called “Prayer Book” for military operations in Panama. The Prayer Book’s centerpiece was Operation Blue Spoon, which outlined plans for the wholesale invasion of Panama for the purpose of abducting its president and protecting America’s most lucrative piece of overseas real estate: the Panama Canal.

But before the bombs were dropped and hundreds of Panamanian civilians slain, Colin Powell, then the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, made some executive edits. Operation Blue Spoon was to be known instead as Operation Just Cause. That way, he explained, “even our severest critics would have to utter ‘Just Cause’ while denouncing us.”

Bush, Powell, and then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney turned out to be trendsetters. Their code-named campaign in Panama foreshadowed the routine of doublespeak and unilateral military intervention that reigns supreme today.

By all accounts, the assault the people of Panama endured in the early morning of December 20, 1989, was a blitzkrieg. The American military, always thrilled to try out new toys, was ecstatic to exploit some important new capacities, both technological and bureaucratic. Decades of Cold War belligerence had delivered a slew of newfangled weapons to American arsenals — something one American general was happy to admit, noting “We are mesmerized with firepower. We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.”

But just as important was the bureaucratic shake-up accomplished a few years earlier by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which streamlined the military command structure by consolidating greater power in the Secretary of Defense. Authored in response to complaints about the 1983 Grenada invasion, during which different military branches sometimes appeared to be working at cross purposes, the Goldwater-Nichols act transformed an American fighting force designed for sustained, inter-state warfare into a dynamic attack engine, responsive to real-time quarterbacking from the executive branch and perfectly suited to shock-and-awe expeditions like Operation Just Cause.

The invasion kicked off at about 1 AM. More than three hundred aircraft screamed across Panamanian airspace, making short work of the airport, Noriega’s private jet, and a gunboat. The El Chorrillo neighborhood of Panama City was bombarded at the rate of one significant explosion every two minutes throughout the night; built mostly of wood, the barrio burned. Discarded parachutes soon littered the city as ground troops took control of the canal and secured the expatriate enclaves where American canal workers lived.

Of the sixteen hundred members of the Panamanian Defense Forces, only a few hundred were reported as casualties. But civilian self-defense groups, known as Dignity Battalions and derided as “DingBats” by American soldiers, were treated as military detachments and summarily gunned down.

Amid the chaos, Noriega managed to flee his residence and take shelter in the Vatican embassy. With the armed forces pacified and the country under the invaders’ control, American tanks surrounded the building, cranked their stereos, and waited.

Man on the Run

For many Americans, Noriega is best remembered as the man driven so mad by Guns & Roses that he exchanged his freedom for a reprieve. Holed up in the papal enclave, surrounded by American tanks, Noriega finally gave in after days of incessant heavy metal music. He was flown immediately to Miami, where he was to stand trial for international drug trafficking.

But it wasn’t his role as the proprietor of a multimillion-dollar drug business that ran Noriega afoul of his buddies in the State Department. It was his willingness to play both sides of a regional conflict that the United States had been sponsoring, in some form or another, for more than a generation.

Noriega had spent most of his career embedded in a cabal of Panamanian military elites with close ties to the United States. Educated at the US-run School of the Americas, an infamous prep school for death squads and war criminals, Noriega was a key player in the putsch that brought dictator Omar Torrijos to power in 1968. Almost immediately, the young upstart used his post in the military government to begin working for the CIA, receiving money and political favors in exchange for taking on some of the US government’s dirty work in the region. Notably, this involved shuttling guns to right-wing forces in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Torrijos died in 1981, and Noriega quickly assumed the position of dictator — just in time for the dirty-money bonanza of the Iran-Contra affair. During this time, Noriega was also emerging as a major player in the Medellin drug cartel; Panama, under his firm control, provided smugglers with a launching pad from which to deliver cocaine to the United States and elsewhere.

But his fortunes changed in the mid-1980s, when the world learned about the Reagan administration’s dirty dealings in Central America. Suddenly starved of clandestine US support, the strongman turned elsewhere for international backing. He traded secrets with Cuba and initiated contact with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and Muammar Qadaffi in Libya.

Needless to say, the thought of Soviet allies getting friendly with the keeper of their precious trans-isthmus canal made the Americans squirm. Suddenly unwilling to tolerate their puppet’s egregious corruption — not to mention his vicious repression of dissent within Panama — the New Right puppet-masters in Washington sent in the cavalry.

The onslaught that ensued had dramatic consequences for ordinary people in Panama. Beyond the estimated several thousand deaths estimated by the Panamanian truth commission, some twenty thousand people were displaced from their homes. Throughout it all, television viewers in the United States listened to their political leaders wax poetic about a new era of smart bombs and surgical warfare — disingenuous rhetoric that the news media dutifully parroted.

But even Human Rights Watch soon called bullshit on the Pentagon’s talk about a surgical operation in Panama, pointing out the extremely high rates of civilian causalities relative to US military deaths to argue, “the American government appears bent once again on disregarding the fate of foreigners — military and civilian — who die in wars fought by the United States.”

That wonton disregard for life persists today. In 1991, President Bush launched the first Gulf War, once again justifying preemptive regime change with a flimsy appeal to democracy. His Democratic successor oversaw armed interventions in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, and the Balkans. And of course his son, in a striking reprise of his father’s performance, invaded Iraq in 2004 to depose Saddam Hussein — like Noriega, a onetime American ally who had run afoul of his handlers.

We can trace a bright line backwards in time from today’s foreign policy regime to Operation Just Cause. During those weeks in 1989–1990, the American foreign policy monster, at last relatively unconstrained by the postwar Soviet rivalry, first stretched its limbs, extended its claws, and roared.