Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Manuel Antonio Noriega, the...

...brash former dictator of Panama and sometime ally of the United States whose ties to drug trafficking led to his ouster in 1989 in what was then the largest American military action since the Vietnam War, died Monday night in Panama City. He was 83."

So reads the first two sentences of Manuel Noriega's obituary in the New York Times today. If you squint a little, though, it could have just as easily read:

"Saddam Hussein, the brash former dictator of Iraq and sometime ally of the United States whose ... ouster in 2003 in what was then the largest American military action since the Vietnam War..."

And my point is that I've always thought that President George H. W. Bush's invasion of Panama in 1989 served as the model for his son's invasion of Iraq fourteen years later.

Read the following and substitute "Saddam Hussein" and "Iraq" when necessary (my emphasis):

Mr. Noriega, who became the de facto leader of the country by promoting himself to full general of the armed forces in 1983, had a decades-long, head-spinning relationship with the United States, shifting from cooperative ally and informant for American drug and intelligence agencies to shady adversary, selling secrets to political enemies of the United States in the Western Hemisphere and tipping off drug cartels. Whose side he was on was often hard to tell.

“He craved power and became a tyrant,” Mr. Koster and Mr. S├ínchez wrote in laying out Mr. Noriega’s ultimate undoing. “He craved wealth and became a criminal. And the careers came in conflict.”

Mr. Noriega’s two-facedness was known to American officials. But they saw him as useful in helping them maintain influence in Panama at a time of leftist uprisings in Central America. He provided, for one thing, an important listening post in the region.

He grew more belligerent, however, and by 1989 American patience had run out

The United States Senate in 1986 overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on Panama to remove Mr. Noriega from the Panamanian Defense Forces pending an investigation of charges of corruption, election fraud, murder and drug trafficking.

“That was enough,” President George Bush said in announcing the invasion, which included more than 27,000 troops.

A White House statement as the invasion got underway said the United States had acted “to protect American lives, restore the democratic process, preserve the integrity of the Panama Canal treaties and apprehend Manuel Noriega.” Political commentators assigned other motives, including a way for Mr. Bush to shake off perceptions of weakness; his poll numbers rose significantly after the invasion.

Panamanian forces were overwhelmed as Mr. Noriega escaped into hiding, surfacing days later, on Dec. 24, at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City. Twenty-three American service members were killed and more than 300 wounded in the invasion; casualties among Panamanians have been disputed, with the Panamanian government at the time estimating that several hundred soldiers and civilians had died, while some human rights groups insist the toll was much higher.

He surrendered on Jan. 3, 1990, and was flown to jail in Florida, leaving behind a new president sworn in on an American military base and a new era for Panama.

If only Iraq had been that easy! But I think that was how it was supposed to go down: invade Iraq, be greeted as "liberators," capture Saddam Hussein and install a new Western-style democracy all within a month. Beautiful!

Spoiler alert: it didn't happen exactly that way.

But the bottom line is this: If you're a foreign leader and you piss off an American president named Bush don't be too surprised to find your country invaded and its leader (you) jailed or, worse, put to death. The corollary to this, of course, is that if you're an American president named Bush don't think this will all go quite as smoothly as it did for your dad. While history often rhymes, it is under no obligation to repeat itself.

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