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The Panama Invasion Revisited:

Lessons for the Use of Force in the Post Cold War Era

Eytan Gilboa

 Political Science Quarterly, (v110 n4) Winter 1995-1996, pp.539-562


The 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama was the first American use of force since 1945 that was unrelated to the cold war. It was also the first large-scale use of American troops abroad since Vietnam and the most violent event in Panamanian history. It ended with the unusual capture of Manuel Antonio Noriega, Panama's head of state, who was then brought to the United States and tried for criminal drug operations. Despite the end of the cold war, dictators such as Noriega, Saddam Hussein, and Serbian leaders Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic will continue to exist and to challenge the international order. How should the United States, the only remaining superpower, deal with these kinds of authoritarian leaders? What lessons can we learn from the Noriega challenge and the means employed by the United States to handle him?


Noriega was a corrupt dictator heading an efficient narcomilitaristic regime in Panama. He was involved in drug trafficking, arms smuggling, money laundering, and the ruthless oppression of his people. He also systematically violated the American-Panamanian Canal treaties and harassed U.S. forces and institutions in Panama. But were all these violations sufficient to justify a massive military intervention to remove Noriega from power? In the last forty years, the United States intervened in Latin American countries but always in connection with perceived communist threats and the cold war. Noriega was not a communist and did not plan to move Panama into the Soviet sphere of influence. On the contrary, he played a key role in American efforts to contain the spread of communism in Central America. Historically, Panama was strategically important to the United States because of the Panama Canal. By the mid-1980s, however, the canal had lost much of its strategic value.(1) In 1978 President Jimmy Carter recognized this change and negotiated an agreement to transfer control of the canal to Panama by the end of the century.(2)

Why then, in the absence of cold war considerations, did the United States consider a relatively insignificant dictator a major challenge whose removal from power required full-scale military intervention? To answer this question, one must examine a combination of factors: escalation in the conflict, domestic priorities including the war on drugs, George Bush's leadership difficulties, and America's new global responsibilities as the sole remaining superpower.

The Noriega problem began in 1985 as an internal Panamanian affair. Between 1985 and the 1989 U.S. invasion, it went through a series of five minicrises. A turning point occurred in February 1988, when the United States declared drugs to be the major threat to American society at the same time that Noriega was indicted in Florida for drug trafficking and money laundering. Following the indictments, the United States sought to remove Noriega from power. The Reagan and Bush administrations hoped for and preferred a Panamanian solution, like a coup d'etat, an election that would end Noriega's rule, or a popular uprising of the kind that removed from power dictators such as Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.

The two administrations used overt and covert operations to help start popular uprisings and coups and also assisted the opposition in the 1989 Panamanian elections. None of these efforts were successful, and the United States decided to use other measures to remove Noriega such as negotiations, economic and diplomatic sanctions, and military threats. These measures also failed, mainly due to underestimation of Noriega's ability to survive, bureaucratic infighting, mixed messages, congressional - White House feuds, operational restrictions, and incompetent American implementation of policies and plans. The failure of these measures strengthened Noriega's position in Panama, as he defiantly withstood superpower pressure. Thus, as his political position became stronger, it became more important to the United States to remove him from power.

Throughout the confrontation, Noriega felt immune to American reprisals or punishment. One author claimed that "the United States sent clear signals, which if evaluated correctly, could have provided warning [to Noriega! of a U.S. attack."(3) But even hours before the actual attack, Noriega did not believe the United States would use force to capture him.(4) His failure was not only the result of faulty evaluation. The evidence presented in this article shows that over a long period of time, the United States sent him mixed and confusing signals. Thus, a tougher and more unified U.S. policy that was clearly articulated and communicated from the beginning could have obviated the need for the Panama invasion.


Noriega had been an intelligence officer under General Omar Torrijos before he became the commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF).(5) He had been a corrupt official involved with illegal smuggling of drugs and arms.(6) Yet he was considered a close ally of various American governmental agencies. He cooperated with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), had allies in the Department of Defense (DOD), and was on and off the CIA payroll as early as 1971.(7) In addition, he was a source of intelligence for and a channel of communication between the United States and Fidel Castro. Most importantly, however, during the civil war in Nicaragua, he provided access and assistance to the contra campaign against the Sandinistas.

Despite his involvement with drugs, at least until his indictment in 1988, Noriega was considered by the United States both as an asset and a liability. When he committed crimes and abused his power, Washington looked the other way. In 1979, for example, senior officials in the Carter administration blocked federal prosecutors from bringing drug-trafficking and arms-smuggling indictments against Noriega, because they preferred to continue receiving the intelligence information he was providing them. Following the conclusion of the canal treaties, they did not want to upset the political situation in Panama.(8) With the United States continually ignoring his abuses, Noriega may have been encouraged to continue or even increase his drug-related activities.

Washington also looked the other way during the 1984 elections in Panama. In May 1984, Panama held its first free elections in sixteen years. The official vote count showed Noriega's hand-picked candidate, Nicolas Barletta, winning by 1,713 votes. But rumors of fraud appeared on election day and persisted in subsequent days. Eventually it became clear that the PDF had doctored the election results in order to produce a victory for Noriega's candidate.(9)

The fraudulent May 1984 elections set back the chances for democracy in Panama and demonstrated Noriega's ability to undermine the political process. They might have also served as a warning to the United States about Noriega. But instead of viewing Noriega's manipulations as a threat to democracy in Panama, Washington chose to ignore them. Barletta was well known in Washington and had good connections with several senior officials. He had studied economics at the University of Chicago when Secretary of State George Shultz was a professor there, was a former vice president of the World Bank and ex-director of the Department of Economic Affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS). Shultz legitimized the elections by attending Barletta's inauguration as president of Panama.

Finally, American actions in an undercover drug operation sent Noriega a message that his involvement in drug trafficking would be overlooked if he assisted the United States in the battle against the Sandinistas. In 1984, the DEA conducted a major undercover operation in Colombia designed to arrest and convict druglords, including Pablo Escobar.(10) In June, Barry Seal, a DEA agent, took a rare picture of Escobar and Sandinista officers loading cocaine into an airplane. A few weeks later Oliver North, on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council, leaked the photo to American newspapers, hoping that the evidence on links between the drug cartel and the Sandinistas would encourage Congress to vote in favor of aid to the contras. The disclosure of the photo ruined the covert operation and the chance to indict Escobar and his allies. Noriega thus understood that the United States cared more about fighting the contras than about waging war against drugs.

Thus, during the first two years of Noriega's rule, the United States ignored his criminal activities and abuses of the political process in Panama. The U.S. messages may have shaped a belief system that encouraged Noriega to continue the same policies and may have distorted his ability to correctly interpret further U.S. reactions to his behavior. This phenomenon was clearly visible in five American-Panamanian crises.


Dr. Hugo Spadafora was a physician but also a romantic revolutionary, a guerrilla fighter, and a political activist. He first confronted Noriega and accused him of illegal activities when both were serving in General Torrijos's government. In September 1985, Spadafora announced that he would expose Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking and arms smuggling.(11) But before he could reveal his evidence, he was captured, severely tortured, and murdered in a manner intended to send a message to Noriega's opponents. His body was found decapitated, a punishment reserved for traitors.(12)

The brutal murder of Spadafora created a crisis in Panama. The media, the Spadafora family, and leaders of the opposition demanded an immediate investigation and punishment of the murderers. Noriega and the PDF were the obvious prime suspects, but they had the power to block any attempt to discover the truth about the murder. President Barletta condemned the murder and insisted on investigating the case, but Noriega forced him to resign. Elliot Abrams, the new assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, encouraged Barletta to stand firm.(13) Despite his effort, Barletta announced his resignation and was replaced by Vice President Eric Delvalle.

Spadafora's murder and Barletta's dismissal concerned the State Department, but Abrams thought that a tough American message would modify Noriega's behavior. Therefore, U.S. embassy officials visited the offices of La Prensa, the local newspaper that had implicated Noriega and the PDF in the murder, and received members of the Spadafora family. The U.S. ambassador in Panama, Everett Briggs, also declared in a public speech that true democracy requires supremacy of civilian authority over the military.(14) Later, in a highly symbolic measure, the Department of State diverted $14 million in aid from Panama to Guatemala, where a new civilian president had just taken office.(15)

At the same time, however, the CIA and the DEA continued to view Noriega as a vital asset and sent him the opposite message. CIA Director William Casey summoned Noriega, still on the CIA payroll, to a meeting on 1 November 1985 in the CIA headquarters. The State Department expected Casey, whom Noriega highly respected, to warn him. Casey, however, did not raise any of the disturbing questions about the Spadafora murder and the forced resignation of Barletta, and even assured Noriega that the Reagan administration would continue to support him.(16) The DEA also continued to send Noriega thank-you letters for his cooperation in drug enforcement efforts.(17)

A few weeks later, the White House and the State Department attempted to correct the positive messages the CIA and the DEA had delivered to Noriega. In mid-December, new National Security Adviser, Admiral John Poindexter, Elliot Abrams, and other U.S. officials met Noriega in Panama. Poindexter criticized Noriega for his illegal activities and "PDF brutality," a coded reference to the murder of Spadafora. Noriega denied all the charges, however. Poindexter did not press him any further and chose not to warn him.(18) Noriega manipulated the meeting, and the State Department plan to send him a tough message did not materialize.

Bureaucratic infighting, mainly among the State Department, CIA, and DEA, produced a mixed message. This allowed Noriega to conclude that his status in Washington was well protected. He believed that he had only a few opponents in the State Department who did not realize the valuable contributions he had made to U.S. interests and that his friends in the CIA and DOD would defend and protect him against these opponents.


According to an internal secret plan signed after the death of Torrijos, Noriega was supposed to retire in 1987, when his deputy, Colonel Roberto Diaz Herrera, was supposed to replace him as PDF commander. However on 5 June 1987, Noriega announced that he would remain PDF commander for another five years and assigned Diaz Herrera to an unattractive diplomatic position, leaving him bitter and frustrated. The next day Diaz Herrera retaliated against Noriega by publicly revealing details about Noriega's crimes.(19) He accused him of orchestrating the murder of Spadafora and rigging the 1984 elections. He even blamed Noriega for the death of Torrijos in a 1981 mysterious plane crash, claiming that Noriega had placed a bomb in his plane.

Herrera's charges inspired massive protests against the government. On 8 June 1987, nearly 100,000 people, close to a fourth of the population of Panama City, demonstrated against Noriega. The opposition formed a new coalition and demanded the immediate resignation of Noriega and other individuals named by Diaz Herrera. Demonstrations and strikes continued for several weeks in both cities and rural areas. Noriega responded by charging Diaz Herrera with treason and by cracking down hard on the demonstrators, destroying and damaging property belonging to political opponents and shutting down the media.

On 26 June 1987, the U.S. Senate approved a nonbinding resolution by an overwhelming vote of 84 to 2 (S. Res. 239) calling upon Noriega and his principal officers to step down pending a "public accounting" of Herrera's charges. Noriega struck back by sending government workers to demonstrate near the American Embassy. The demonstration turned into a riot, with workers throwing rocks, smashing windows, and overturning and damaging employees' cars. This incident reminded Shultz of the 1979 Iranian attack on the American Embassy in Teheran, and it led him to tell Arthur Davis, the U.S. ambassador in Panama: "If that's the kind of relationship they [Noriega and the PDF! want, that's the kind of relationship they'll get."(20) Shultz quickly clarified what he meant by a new kind of relationship. The State Department suspended military aid to Panama, the DOD reduced military contacts between the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and the PDF, and, most importantly, the CIA removed Noriega from its payroll.

The real U.S. goal, however, was to remove Noriega from power either by negotiating his resignation or by encouraging a PDF coup against him.

In a speech given to the World Affairs Council in Washington on 30 June 1987, Elliot Abrams called on the PDF leaders to "remove their institution from politics, end any appearance of corruption, and modernize their forces to carry out their large and important military tasks." Abrams's aides explained to reporters beforehand that "corruption" referred to Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking and that the rest of the statement was intended to encourage the PDF to remove Noriega from its ranks.(21) On 2 July the Washington Post reported on the speech with the explanations and clarifications of the code terms and the intended messages.

Between August and December 1987, the United States also used three negotiating channels to present Noriega with several plans and deals for his resignation. The first channel involved Jose Blandon, the Panamanian consul general in New York, who was a close associate of Noriega. The second channel was initiated by Noriega, who invited retired Admiral Daniel J. Murphy to meet with him in Panama in August and November 1987. Finally, on 30 December 1987, Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, met with Noriega in Panama.

The first channel produced the Blandon Plan, which called for the retirement of Noriega and his inner circle of PDF officers by April 1988 at the latest, the establishment of a transition regime under President Delvalle that would rule the state until the May 1989 elections, an independent media, and the resumption of U.S. aid.(22) The circumstances behind the Murphy mission are still in dispute. Prior to his retirement in 1985, Murphy held important governmental positions including chief of staff to Vice President George Bush. It is not yet clear whether this was a private mission or another unofficial channel for communications and negotations.(23) In any case, Noriega acted as if Murphy represented the official American position. Murphy repeated the Blandon terms but revised one critical component - the time-table. Murphy told Noriega he had until the May 1989 elections to resign. Noriega concluded that the American timetable was not as tough as Blandon had originally presented. On 21 December 1987, Noriega rejected the Blandon Plan and a few weeks later fired Blandon.(24) Blandon then accused Murphy of undermining his plan by giving Noriega extra time to depart.

On 30 December 1987, Armitage went to Panama to send Noriega a "tough" message and to tell him that all the branches of the Reagan administration had adopted a unified position seeking his departure. Armitage may have offered Noriega an incentive to resign, such as agreeing to stop the investigation into his drug trafficking activities.(25) It is not clear, however, whether Armitage carried out this mission. The press briefings in Washington on the meeting conveyed a tough American stand, but according to one source, "Armitage never asked Noriega to leave."(26) Even if he did, the message became blurred when Noriega and Armitage appeared before PDF officers laughing and drinking Old Parr scotch together.(27)

Why did all these negotiating channels between the United States and Noriega fail to resolve the crisis? The main problem was that there were too many different channels transmitting too many confusing messages, causing Noriega to believe there was a split in the Reagan administration over his removal. He may also have thought that as the U.S. terms got better for him, time was on his side. He may have rejected deals offered to him, hoping at every point in time that a new deal would provide him with more concessions and better conditions. However, it is also probable that he only wanted to confuse and frustrate the United States and never had any intention of negotiating a settlement. The United States should have taken such motivation into consideration and should have used more aggressive bargaining techniques to uncover Noriega's real intentions.


(Footnotes on page 4)

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The Panama Canal Treaties of 1977, signed by President Jimmy Carter and Brigadier General Omar Torrijos in Washington, D.C., September 1977, and entered into force on 1 October 1979.