[December 20, 2018] A recurring theme in successful military strategies has always been that war should be in that nation’s interests, quick and decisive, and justified on moral grounds. Now in the history books that the U.S. invades Panama in 1989, it should have been a predictable result of U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s strategically poor decision to hand the canal back to a country without the requisite political capability to properly manage such an asset.
But was the U.S. invasion in the national interests, quick and decisive, and justified? There are many who will argue that the answer is “no.” Of course, the answer is largely beyond the scope of a short article like this one. Suffice it to note that no one can deny that from a U.S. perspective, the war was conducted professionally; using overwhelming force, a highly motivated and trained military, and at its core, a principle to limit civilian casualties.
The invasion itself was codenamed Operation Just Cause and occurred between December 20, 1989 and late January 1990. The de facto Panamanian leader, general, and dictator Manuel Noriega was deposed and president-elect Guillermo Endara swore into office. The Panamanian Defense Force was also dissolved.
It is interesting that leading up to the war, Manuel Noriega worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to help funnel illegal weapons, military equipment, and cash to U.S.-backed counter-insurgency forces throughout Latin America. The U.S. also considered Noriega an ally in its War on Drugs, despite him amassing a personal fortune through drug trafficking operations.1
The official justification of the invasion was given by U.S. President George H. W. Bush a few hours after the start of the operation (see footnote 2 below for the list). The importance of the Panama Canal to world economies has been immense and cannot be underrated. Of all the major world events, construction of the canal helped commerce thrive throughout the 20th century. But it also created a breeding-ground for corruption, graft, murder, and international intrigue.
The history of the country of Panama is fraught with problems created largely by the U.S. and corrupt Central American political leaders. While the efforts of the U.S. were largely beneficial, Americas grossly underestimated the divisiveness created by the operation of the canal. The U.S. invasion of Panama 29 years ago on this date is a testimony to the observation that even doing the right thing can have adverse, unintended consequences.
- Reasons justifying the invasion of Panama:
- Safeguarding the lives of U.S. citizens in Panama.
- Defending democracy and human rights in Panama.
- Combating drug trafficking.
- Protecting the integrity of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties (which guaranteed that Panama would gain control over the U.S. built and funded Panama Canal after 1999).