More Than a Thorn in the Side

President Bush is doing no better at getting rid of Panama’s military strong man, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, than former President Reagan did. Now Bush is starting to make the same kinds of mistakes Reagan did--embarrassing the United States, and playing into the dictator’s hands.

The previous Administration helped create the Frankenstein’s monster that Noriega has become. Its operatives eagerly used the thuggish commander of Panama’s Defense Forces as an asset in their covert war against Nicaragua for six years. Only last year, when Noriega was indicted by U.S. grand juries for his alleged involvement in drug smuggling, did Reagan and his aides turn against their former ally.

They began by imposing economic sanctions on Panama, hoping to turn popular opinion there against Noriega and force him to flee the country. They damaged, perhaps permanently, Panama’s economy but failed to budge Noriega. Like many other gangsters, the general had made too many enemies to find anywhere else he’d be safe so he had to stay put. That tempted Reagan and his aides to try covert action, according to recently published reports. Ignoring the fact that Noriega had defeated one coup attempt by rival army officers, Reagan ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to foment another coup. The refusal of the Senate Intelligence Committee to approve the scheme halted it in its tracks.


Now Bush has persuaded the congressional intelligence committees to provide more than $10 million that will be spent by the CIA to help Noriega’s opponents in next month’s presidentialelection in Panama. But a covert strategy will probably work no better this time. By all accounts, Noriega and his henchmen are firmly in control of the machinery for the May 7 election. They will hand an electoral victory to Noriega’s handpicked candidate, Carlos Duque, even if it takes a combination of fraud and repression to do it. And there are not enough CIA operatives in the world to stop them.

If Bush is determined to help the political opposition in Panama, he would be better advised to do so openly. But even that strategy could backfire given the resentment many Panamanians feel toward interference by their powerful northern neighbor. Noriega is already using the reports of past CIA activities in Panama as a campaign issue against his opponents.

A far better approach to dealing with Noriega would be to join the many other nations of the Western Hemisphere that disapprove of him in a regional effort to isolate the pariah. This country’s Latin American allies have no more use for a brutish dictator with drug money in his pockets than the United States does. But neither can they stand by and allow the Colossus of the North depose him at will. Bush recently gave up Reagan’s foolish war against Nicaragua in favor of a cooperative regional approach to negotiate peace begun by Costa Rica. While the President probably finds Noriega no more palatable than the Sandinistas, he must now be practical and courageous enough to change course on another failed policy. In Panama, as in Nicaragua, regional cooperation will work more effectively than adventurism.