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COMBAT IN PANAMA : Majority of Lawmakers Hail Bush’s Move

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A clear majority in the Democratic-controlled Congress, which has often urged President Bush to get tough on Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega, on Wednesday applauded the incursion into Panama and urged the Administration to bring the deposed leader to justice.

“My reaction is: Finally! At last!” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), reflecting the frustration that many members of Congress have felt in recent months.

“The White House has done too little for too long,” declared Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).

“I support the President’s decision,” said Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Me.), who has been among Bush’s harshest critics on other foreign policy matters. “It was made necessary by the reckless actions of Gen. Noriega.”

Like Aspin, Cranston and Mitchell, most Democrats praised the invasion on grounds that it apparently has restored democracy to Panama. And many concluded that the President was left with “no choice” but to invade Panama after Saturday night’s killing of an unarmed American Marine officer in civilian clothes by Noriega’s forces.

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“Noriega was making a laughingstock of the United States,” said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) “He was baiting us.”

The President was legally justified to invade Panama, most members said, especially because American lives and the Panama Canal Treaties were in jeopardy and because efforts to negotiate a solution through the Organization of American States had failed.

“It’s not like we were playing the Lone Ranger on this one,” Richardson added.

But although they were clearly in the minority, at least six Democratic members of Congress--Reps. Don Edwards, Anthony C. Beilenson and Ronald Dellums of California, Charles B. Rangel and Ted Weiss of New York and Henry Gonzalez of Texas--spoke out forcefully against the invasion.

Edwards called the invasion “a trigger-happy act of gunboat diplomacy that continues our mindless, 100-year abuse of small Central American nations.”

But most in Congress responded favorably. Bush had every reason to believe they would, especially because many Democrats and Republicans had lambasted him for failing to assist in a failed coup attempt against Noriega last Oct. 3. Some members believe he acted in part to satisfy the many complaints he was hearing from Congress.

The White House informed the top four leaders of the House and Senate of the planned assault just before it was launched late Tuesday and contacted other key members of Congress once the operation was under way.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) a senior Foreign Relations Committee member, called the action “an overwhelming success because democracy has now been inaugurated and installed in Panama.”

At the same time, though, even some of those who praised the operation expressed fears that the President’s decision to solve the problem with military force might ultimately backfire.

The House Armed Services Committee will hold hearings in January to look into some apparent glitches in the military operation, according to Aspin. Among other things, he said, the committee will try to determine why U.S. troops failed to capture Noriega immediately and why Panamanian forces were permitted to take American hostages during the invasion.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said he had raised several misgivings about the invasion when the President telephoned him Tuesday night. Foley staunchly refused to express any of these concerns publicly until American troops return home.

Noriega’s ability to elude U.S. intelligence forces clearly disturbed many members.

“What I don’t understand . . . is why we don’t have Noriega himself,” Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) declared. “We’ve been following him daily for months on end, and there are not that many places to hide. Until we have Noriega, this operation can’t be deemed a total success.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who said he did not want to “second-guess” the President’s decision, also complained that “this unilateral military intervention may do long-term damage to our foreign policy, to our ability to work with other nations in Latin American and to our goal of achieving lasting democracy in the region.”

But Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Latin American affairs, said, “The Latin reaction is a good one at this point. The reaction is one of silence, and that would have to be interpreted as benign support.”

One recurring theme in the many statements issued by members of Congress was the need for the President to comply with the War Powers Resolution, which gives Congress up to 90 days to object whenever U.S. forces are placed in hostile action by the President without a traditional declaration of war.

Under the War Powers Resolution, the President also must notify Congress within 48 hours after the start of such an invasion. But no President--neither Republican nor Democrat--has ever recognized the constitutionality of the resolution.

Rangel, one of the leading critics of the attack, ridiculed Bush’s contention that he was forced to move into Panama because of the slaying of an American citizen by Panamanian forces and the harassment of others.

“If that is so, far more happens on the streets of New York every day and night, and I say that too is enough,” Rangel declared. “Why are we not providing massive assistance to our state and local people in cities and towns where the real war on drugs is being waged?”

Gonzalez said, “There is no question that Noriega is a corrupt monster.” But he added that “Panama is an artificial thing wrenched from Colombia (at the beginning of the century) as a convenience to us,” and concluded, “Today’s action is simply the culmination of a bankrupt, failed policy of using and abusing Panama.”


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