By Ryan McMaken*
By 1989, it had become apparent to all — everyone except the CIA, of course — that the Soviet economy, and thus the Soviet state was in very deep trouble.
In November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down in the face of Soviet impotence. And, with the Cold-War corpse not even cold yet, the US used the newly apparent Soviet weakness as an opportunity to begin invading a variety of foreign countries. These included Iraq, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia.
But first on the list was Panama in December 1989. At the time, the Panamanian state was an authoritarian regime that stayed in power largely due to US support, and functioned as an American puppet state in Central America where Communists were often successful in overthrowing right-wing dictatorships. The US regime’s man in Panama was Manuel Noriega, who just died at 83 years of age. After years in US, French, and Panamanian prisons, Noriega has been forgotten by nearly everyone. But, after he stopped taking orders from Washington, Noriega became the first in a long line of foreign politicians who were held up as the next “Hitler” by the American propaganda machine. This was done in order to justify what would become an endless policy of invading tiny foreign countries that are no threat to the US — all done in the name of “humanitarian” intervention.
Writing in April 1990, Murray Rothbard summed up the situation in Panama:
The U.S. invasion of Panama was the first act of military intervention in the new post-Cold War world — the first act of war since 1945 where the United States has not used Communism or “Marxism-Leninism” as the effective all-purpose alibi. Coming so soon after the end of the Cold War, the invasion was confused and chaotic — a hallmark of Bushian policy in general. Bush’s list of alleged reasons for the invasion were a grab-bag of haphazard and inconsistent arguments — none of which made much sense.
The positive vaunting was, of course, prominent: what was called, idiotically, the “restoration of democracy” in Panama. When in blazes did Panama ever have a democracy? Certainly not under Noriega’s beloved predecessor and mentor, the U.S.’s Panama Treaty partner, General Omar Torrijos. The alleged victory of the unappetizing Guillermo Endara in the abortive Panamanian election was totally unproven. The “democracy” the U.S. imposed was peculiar, to say the least: swearing in Endara and his “cabinet” in secrecy on a US army base.
It was difficult for our rulers to lay on the Noriega “threat” very heavily: Since Noriega, whatever his other sins, is obviously no Marxist-Leninist, and since the Cold War is over anyway it would have been tricky; even embarrassing, to try to paint Noriega and his tiny country as a grave threat to big, powerful United States. And so the Bush administration laid on the “drug” menace with a trowel, braving the common knowledge that Noriega himself was a longtime CIA creature and employee whose drug trafficking was at the very least condoned by the U.S. for many years.
The administration therefore kept stressing that Noriega was simply a “common criminal” who had been indicted in the US (for actions outside the US — so why not indict every other head of state as well — all of whom have undoubtedly committed crimes galore?) so that the invasion was simply a police action to apprehend an alleged fugitive. But what real police action — that is, police action over a territory over which the government has a virtual monopoly of force —involves total destruction of an entire working-class neighborhood, the murder of hundreds of Panamanian civilians as well as American soldiers, and the destruction of a half-billion dollars of civilian property?
The invasion also contained many bizarre elements of low comedy: There was the U.S. government’s attempt to justify the invasion retroactively by displaying Noriega’s plundered effects: porno in the desk drawer (well, gee, that sure justifies mass killing and destruction of property), the obligatory picture of Hitler in the closet (Aha! the Nazi threat again!), the fact that Noriega was stocking a lot of Soviet-made arms (a Commie as well as a Nazi, and “paranoid” too — the deluded fool was actually expecting an American invasion!)
It’s almost darkly comedic how easy it has been to convince the American people to go along with nearly any justification for invading a foreign country, no matter how flimsy. It may be hard for my younger readers to comprehend, but in the late 80s, the American public was so hysterical with fear over street drugs, that it struck many Americans as perfectly reasonable to invade a foreign country, burn down a neighborhood, and send the US Army to lay siege to Panama’s presidential headquarters to catch a single drug kingpin.
The US would perfect aspects of this routine as time went on. In 1991, Saddam Hussein was the next Hitler, with the media hinting that if left unchecked, Hussein would invade the entire Middle East. “He gassed his own people!” was the endless refrain. The other justification was that Saddam’s government had invaded another country. Rothbard, of course, noted the irony of this “justification”:
But, “he invaded a small country.” Yes, indeed he did. But, are we ungracious for bringing up the undoubted fact that none other than George Bush, not long ago, invaded a very small country: Panama? And to the unanimous huzzahs of the same U.S. media and politicians now denouncing Saddam?
By the Clinton years, Slobodan Milošević was the new next Hitler.
The downside of these new Hitlers, of course, was that any reasonable person could see that none of them were any threat whatsoever to the United States.
Even the call for “humanitarian” action rung a little untrue for more astute observers. After all, it struck many people as curious as to why Serbia required bombing for its human rights violations while the genocide in Rwanda — which was occurring right around the same time — was steadfastly ignored by Washington. If human rights were such a major concern for the US state in the 90s, why was there no invasion of North Korea in response to the horrors of the death camps there?
New life was breathed into the military-interventionist camp after 2001 by Osama bin Laden. But “humanitarian” missions and the search for the next Hitler continue to this day.
In 2011, the usual tactics were employed to justify the invasion of Libya — which only made the country a breeding ground for ISIS and Al Qaeda.
And today, of course, we hear the same things about Bashar Assad in Syria. Like Noriega, Hussein, Milošević, and Qaddafi before him, Assad is obviously no threat to the US or its residents. Indeed, Assad is fighting people who potentially are a threat to US residents. But, since the US military establishment wants Assad gone, some excuse must be manufactured for an invasion.
Assad is simply the latest iteration of Noriega: a foreign strongman whose every vice and misdeed — as with every political leader, there are plenty of them — must be magnified in an attempt to justify yet another foreign invasion.
Ultimately, Rothbard concluded that these methods can be employed against any regime on earth, and wrote sarcastically in 1994: “‘we cannot stand idly by’ while anyone anywhere starves, hits someone over the head, is undemocratic, or commits a Hate Crime.”:
We must face the fact that there is not a single country in the world that measures up to the lofty moral and social standards that are the hallmark of the U.S.A.: even Canada is delinquent and deserves a whiff of grape. There is not a single country in the world which, like the U.S., reeks of democracy and “human rights,” and is free of crime and murder and hate thoughts and undemocratic deeds. Very few other countries are as Politically Correct as the U.S., or have the wit to impose a massively statist program in the name of “freedom,” “free trade,” “multiculturalism,” and “expanding democracy.”
And so, since no other countries shape up to U.S. standards in a world of Sole Superpower they must be severely chastised by the U.S. I make a Modest Proposal for the only possible consistent and coherent foreign policy: the U.S. must, very soon, Invade the Entire World! Sanctions are peanuts; we must invade every country in the world, perhaps softening them up beforehand with a wonderful high-tech missile bombing show courtesy of CNN.
Thus the destruction of Manuel Noriega and his regime illustrated what was to come during the next 25 years of American foreign policy: target a foreign regime that poses no threat to the US, and manufacture a nice-sounding reason for doing so. The 1989 Panama invasion is a reminder of just how little has changed since the Cold War ended. The methods are the same, and only the names have changed.
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. (Contact: email; twitter.) Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
This article was published by the MISES Institute