All Causes Just?

A brief note on the below text: this article was originally a paper I wrote for a national security class taught by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, once Colin Powell’s chief of staff but for many years now someone deeply critical of the US posturing in the world. He was then and is now a deeply thoughtful man whose insights and speeches are well worth the time to seek them out. Any mistakes of clarity and fact in here are my own, despite his best efforts. Some references may be out of date, but I chose to keep them intact to let the writing be in its place, such as referring the John Kerry as the Secretary of State, which he was at the time of this initial writing. I felt it important to any reader to place themselves in the time and place of the composition of this article.

Operation Just Cause, the US intervention in Panama, had the ostensible purpose of ousting rogue dictator Manuel Noriega and returning democracy to its people. These are laudable goals, supported by a rational, humane person. These were two of the selling points, besides US personnel safety, President H.W. Bush presented to the American people in his address to the nation after the troops had hit the ground and accomplished a host of their goals. One remained at the point of the announcement: the capture of the Primum Signum, General Noriega. It would not take long to subdue the fallen Panamanian leader and bring him to the US to sit in a Florida prison to await trial for drug trafficking offenses. While Noriega was doubtless a scoundrel and brute, the United States for a variety of motivations were on an inevitable collision course with him. Historians and analysts often seek an apparent or primary reason one nation interacts with another. Databases and libraries serve as warehouses of intellectual arguments over the minutiae of why Person A wanted to overthrow Person B. A common refrain in the halls of academe goes: give the same scenario to any five professors, and one will receive at least ten answers in response. This axiom of the professorial mind is not to demean the process by which research is done or to place myself over the analytical capabilities of august minds, but to add my view about this US action: there was no principal cause, no main reason. Operation Just Cause, as with many US military actions, intentionally and unintentionally affected a variety of elements within and outside of both countries. Bush 41 had both international and domestic priorities in ordering the invasion. Various actors that made up the national security and military apparatus had their issues to settle. Butler’s Constant, so named by this author after a former professor, holds sway as well: the only eternal law in international affairs is the law of unintended consequences. How did the butterfly wings flapping in Panama roar into the hurricane that was the Iraq invasion of 2003? If Bush 41[i] was seeking a multilateral world, why was his first significant military action strictly unilateral? No decision is straightforward. Operation Just Cause was a tool of propaganda to make war palpable to America again and brought on the rise of Colin Powell into a highly effective Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Further, Just Cause allows another glimpse into the global mindset of Bush 41 and his team.

George Herbert Walker Bush did not seem, by most measures of what makes a capable candidate, an ideal presidential candidate. Soft-spoken and often aloof, Bush 41 was intelligent and capable, but these qualities hardly appealed to the American polity used to the presidency of “the great communicator,” Ronald Reagan. In an age of hair metal and conspicuous consumption, Bush’s brand of the old guard, moderate Republicanism seemed quaint and out of place[ii]. This “wimp factor,” dogged the reserved Bush for much of his career. He was not the reassuring Eisenhower, a raging Nixon, nor the charismatic Reagan. The analysis of Bush 41’s character seems to paint him as just the opposite of Reagan, his former boss: Reagan was a president so many felt they knew but was an enigma to all even those closest to him. Bush 41 was privately engaging and intelligent, and many observers in his sphere bear this out but failed to translate that into the je ne se quoi that Reagan possessed. He was a follower, not a leader; he was not decisive[iii].

Nevertheless, he defeated Michael Dukakis to become President. The Wimp was now the Commander-in-Chief. The ascendance meant a few things for Bush: he could re-tool national security to his tastes, the arena in which he seemed most comfortable, which ran quite the opposite to the Reagan method of rotating advisors, and pursue a typical Republican domestic policy of tax stasis or cutting to spur business, voodoo economics as usual. Considering the Wimp Factor in the decision-making process of Just Cause is important: few leaders, especially the chief of the most advanced military in human history, want to be bumblers. Was it worth Panamanian and US lives to show a spine to the voting public? Bush 41 possessed a personality for the cold calculus of this leadership[iv].

However, President Bush needed subordinates. In a National Security Council, full of bright, competent men, such as Jim Baker, two deserve a closer look: Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell. The history of the NSC is symbiotic with the individuals who made up its staff. This symbiosis of story is powerfully real for Scowcroft, a retired Air Force general who held the post under President Gerald Ford. Donald Rheem, writing for the Christian Science Monitor during the early days of the post-election transition, recorded much praise for Bush 41’s selection of Scowcroft as an “honest broker” who was both competent and egoless[v]. Donald Rheem correctly headlined his article about Scowcroft: an honest broker. Scowcroft had long been a public servant, in the military and now as a civilian in the nascent Bush 41 administration. However, he carried with him the recent memory of having sat on the Tower Commission, which sought to investigate the Iran-Contra affair, though it went well beyond that controversy[vi] to recommend several reforms to the national security process. They are worth quoting as Scowcroft wrote this section of the Commission report and carried so many into his management of the NSC. On the role of the Advisor, the Tower Commission said issues are “fully analyzed,” “full range of options are considered,” and “all relevant intelligence and other information are available to the principals.”[vii] Scowcroft especially followed this advice from the Commission advice: “if the system is to operate well, the National Security Advisor must promote cooperation rather than competition among himself and other NSC principals.” A later report[viii] on the policy process around Operation Just Cause, prepared for USAF by Rebecca Grant at the Rand Corporation, showed Scowcroft’s method in action. It was a stable, efficient method. In his book Running the World, David Rothkopf highlighted critical insights into the Scowcroft mindset: sensitivity to inclusiveness, a desire to be an anti-Kissinger (whom Rothkopf calls “an auteur of his foreign policy”), and be the man in the back. On page after page about Scowcroft or his role as the Advisor, Scowcroft seemed everyone’s friend and no one’s enemy. That is an enviable quality in a man with a lifetime of service in Washington. Scowcroft was only too willing to stay behind the scenes and let more outsized personalities, such as Secretary of State Jim Baker III, stand as the mouthpiece of foreign policy. Baker was one of the critical reasons Scowcroft, along with Bush, was so sensitive of making sure the flow of information was getting equally to the cabinet officers as it was to White House staff. The legacy of the Nixon/Ford years cast a long shadow over the seasoned hands now at the controls, and the principals were intent on keeping collegiality and open discourse, a pivotal point in Scowcroft’s playbook for the Advisor role, as guiding principles for running the national security apparatus. The anti-Kissinger stance is subtle but is grasped more in deed than word. As Rothkopf pointed out, Kissinger and Scowcroft worked well together, and remain friends to the present day. However, Kissinger was a cult of personality around his brilliance and power. Scowcroft was anything but and conducted himself in such a way as never to form a roadblock or bias between the President and his advisors on the council or cabinet[ix].

The third principle actor in the Operation was General Colin Powell. Colin Powell proved capable of so many things so well around the time of his appointment to the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he is, as Scowcroft was for the NSC, a model of what an insightful, attuned Chairman might look. Michael Gordon, writing for the New York Times, called his appointment beneficial to Bush 41 as Powell was a more politically aware creature than his predecessor, Admiral William Crowe[x]. In Gordon’s view, Powell’s political savvy, both to the public and within the administration, was critical in allowing Bush to make the invasion decision after the earlier caution around Panama did not bear hoped-for fruits. Powell advocated engagement, via a public relations strategy, with the media and public from the military, traditionally an institution who liked to do its planning and execution in secrecy. Colin Powell’s political abilities meshed well with his military capabilities: his contribution to the NSC was making plans for Panama more palpable to a President weary of a long, drawn-out conflict. Powell picked up on this early in his tenure, which already started as the Panamanian crisis was heating up, and oversaw the streamlining of the operational plans to make it an overwhelming and, more important to Bush, swift strike against Noriega and his cronies. Ronald Cole, writing a comparative analysis for Joint Forces Quarterly, reinforced Powell’s management with operational evidence. Maxwell Thurman was a capable general who was more inclined to follow orders-as-given; General Stiner used his integrated forces capably; and both responded to Powell’s commands swiftly, including what might have been operationally challenging to conduct: shrinking the total force landing time from three weeks to three days. Cole’s conclusion placed Powell’s leadership in the right: “If proportionally lower friendly casualties mark operational success, Just Cause was more successful than Urgent Fury[xi]. It showed substantial improvement in joint planning and execution. Part of that stemmed from the Goldwater-Nichols Act, part from the time available and forces already in place, and part from the close working relationship of top political and military leaders before and during the operation”[xii] If, as David Rothkopf sets down as a central premise of Running the World, personalities matter to the institution, then Colin Powell was the Chairman par excellence for his time. The reforms laid out in Goldwater-Nichols needed a test, and Operation Just Cause was the test both for the military as a body and the newly minted responsibilities of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Powell lived by what could be called the Bush doctrine or the Scowcroft doctrine or even the Powell doctrine: effectiveness matters. Goldwater-Nichols, theoretically, removed planning and operational barriers within the military structure. Colin Powell proved the wisdom of those reforms[xiii]. It is no hyperbole that David Rothkopf calls the NSC of Bush 41 one of the best and most professional, a model for administrations after his own[xiv].

The nagging question of why such an overwhelming use of force was needed for ousting a weak dictator. President Bush, in a brief televised address to the nation after troops had landed and succeeded in much of the planned military objectives, presented the goals of “the United States have been to safeguard the lives of Americans, to defend democracy in Panama, to combat drug trafficking, and to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal treaty.” The call to the defense of democracy returned to a tool the Reagan administration had eschewed in its strict adherence to a policy of realpolitik: defending democracy was the song of Wilsonianism. This intangible idea is so commonly called upon in the wars since Just Cause it is hard to believe it was not a reason of note for almost fifteen years after the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam. Holding a light to the text of this brief speech against evidence at the time and revealed since a profoundly cynical view develops about the motivation of the United States in deposing Manuel Noriega. At the date of the announcement, Noriega had been formally charged with high-level drug felonies, but an investigation in the New York Times ran during Bush’s campaign for President, casts a shadow over his declaring an attack on Panama a battle against drug trafficking. The article, “Bush and Noriega: Examination of Their Ties,” demonstrated a long history between the President and the Panamanian ruler, going back to when Noriega’s drug trafficking behavior landed on Bush’s desk as the director of the CIA[xv]. Noriega was quite a character during Bush’s tenure as CIA chief and again as the Vice-President. In an examination of Bush’s “dirty secrets,” Rolling Stone, admittedly a source that was no doubt unfriendly to the then VP, revealed Bush knew the drug trafficking, that Bush or his lieutenants knew all manner of Noriega’s criminal activities in the region.

But Noriega proved too valuable in the war against Central American rebel movements to be brought to heel over enriching himself with drugs and weapons trafficking[xvi]. Rebecca Grant’s RAND report about the policy process of Operation Just Cause went into some detail about the pre-history of the decision-making around the Panama invasion. In doing so, infighting and a lack of coherent goals in the sunset of the Reagan administration became the tool needed for Noriega to play various agencies of the federal government off each other and for those such as then-CIA Director William Casey, a friend of Bush, to continue to isolate his asset from DEA scrutiny. Figures in government complained about foreign policy conducted by the Department of Justice. The DOJ countered that with the international efforts to combat drugs, the DOJ had the authority to set international policy[xvii]. Only when Noriega was a more significant liability than an asset was the DOJ able to move forward and indict Noriega. This move was the beginning of the pressure build-up Bush wanted to put on Noriega to have him step down. Bush was not fighting a drug trafficker so much as removing an embarrassment. Bush was speaking truthfully in his national address when raising concern about protecting US citizens: Panama, because of the Canal, had a significant military and civilian US presence. Noriega had authorized the antagonizing of US personnel in response to covert and overt US actions in the region and against him in 1987–88[xviii]. Finally, the Canal itself. Cole again pointed out the Canal has long been a vital nexus for trade, but from the viewpoint of the military, it is the route by which the US Navy can respond to crises in Europe and Asia quickly[xix]. Democracy, always a lofty reason, was protected in this case: the elected government, which Noriega just disregarded, was recognized by the US and given diplomatic status. However, this must be thought of as more a convenience of the moment: the US government accepts barbaric regimes as readily, often more quickly than it accepts the messy nature of democracies, especially in Latin America. The tragic histories of Chile and Guatemala to see the care for democratic rule the US has when the government of another country opposed its objectives.

What then was the need for Operation Just Cause? The long history of compromised moral behavior around the world suggests the US had little concern for Noriega’s governing style so much as how his actions might embarrass the US. Dictators are often better for foreign policy, as it takes little interference from internal governments to do things. Only Americans needed pacification to endless warfare once again. Not the covert action agencies like the CIA had long conducted but the open warfare of the Vietnam era and back. The wearied, self-interested mindset of the American voter had to be re-tuned to accept the need for broad American military action in the world. Noriega was weak, easy to overthrow, and intensely unpopular in his country. He was the perfect target. Greg Grandin, a professor at NYU, wrote a scathing article for Salon calling Operation Just Cause the birth of unilateral military action by the United States and implicitly the diminishment of diplomacy for swift, decisive military action. The result plays out still in the tragedy of the second Iraq war. Grandin provided a few details of note: the renaming of the operation from Blue Spoon to Just Cause by Colin Powell and his subordinates, recall that Powell advocated a PR stance for military operations because it gave a sheen of noble worth to deposing Noriega.

Further, the advocacy for democracy by the President and others became reason one for the invasion. The invasion was approved neither by the UN nor the Organization of American States, but, Grandin says, Defense Secretary Cheney was on PBS assuring everyone that Just Cause was not unilateral action. Telling is a comment from Humberto Brown in an interview with Amy Goodman, who conducted a roundtable with Brown, Grandin, and Wilkerson for a 25th anniversary retrospective of Just Cause where Brown, a Panamanian and former diplomat, confirmed for Goodman that Panamanians consider Just Cause very like 9/11 for Americans in terms of destruction and cruelty[xx].

The government needed a man on the inside, so to speak, to make open warfare a cause all Americans could rally behind. In this effort, the US media was all too willing to jump to aid. “In covering the invasion of Panama, many TV journalists abandoned even the pretense of operating in a neutral, independent mode. Television anchors used pronouns like “we” and “us” in describing the mission into Panama, as if they were members of the invasion force, or at least helpful advisers,” from Jeff Cohen and Mark Cook’s article about the media selling of the Panama invasion, highlighted how the media became another mouthpiece for the efforts of the United States. Variously, Cohen and Cook point out that most major televised outlets, which is how most Americans received the news took no effort to dissect the information given them or supply any alternate narrative[xxi].

There was much narrative to be had for those looking. Most outlets were scant concerned about the death toll or destruction in Panama, only the number of dead among American military personnel. Such gross violations of proportion as the bombing of the El Chorillo neighborhood in Panama City, which razed an entire neighborhood and potentially killed hundreds or thousands, went unreported by the US media. When confronted with such criticisms by FAIR, several outlets simply retorted they were following the US military and did not have need or time to consider those issues[xxii]. In a nation full of mestizo and black ancestry, the media reporting from the ground did not see fit to question, for example, that the jubilant Panamanians praising the US actions were pale, spoke nearly perfect English, and well dressed[xxiii]. To What does all this collusion add up? James Baker said it most clearly: “In breaking the mindset of the American people about the use of force in the post-Vietnam era, Panama established an emotional predicate that permitted us to build the public support so essential for the success of Operation Desert Storm some thirteen months later[xxiv].” In stark black and white ink, the top foreign policy officer of the US government freely admits to needing to make war safe for Americans.

Belen Fernandez, in her Al-Jazeera piece, offered this observation: “The uniqueness of the Panamanian case, however, is that Just Cause was not a proxy war or an example of behind-the-scenes maneuvers by the US. Instead, it was a straightforward assault, evidence of the US being “mesmerised with firepower,” as one of the US commanders of the operation later put it: “We have all these new gadgets, laser-guided missiles and stealth fighters, and we are just dying to use that stuff.” When an unquestionably hegemonic power, as the US became for some time after the fall of the Soviet Union, has too much testosterone in their military blood and had definitively abandoned the sage advice of its first president cautioning against standing armies, it will seek to dominate through warfare and use the technology at its disposal. That humans are the targets of these tools matters little to war planners, or the developers of weapons. Such casualties are beside the point if the nation can make a profit and the US can brag about its substantial power in the world.

A Personal View

The cynical view of US foreign policy inevitably seems to bear out the most truthful answers: The United States was never the noble state, the “Empire of Liberty,” as Thomas Jefferson had hoped it to be. When considering questions about history or government, I almost always turn to Ethics: what is an “acceptable casualty?” When the Secretary of State, John Kerry, conducts foreign affairs so it continues the endless warfare in the war on terror, I wonder if he recalls his own admonition “who is the last man to die for someone else’s mistake?” Operation Just Cause, which is only a speck of history, continues to bedevil the US role in the world. It led an entire administration to conduct a war on an enemy of no significant threat, at the cost of a still unknown amount of lives. I have always thought the second Iraq war was the son saying to the father, “I can do what you never could.” It only took the deaths of five-thousand Americans for that battle of wills to play out. Cindy Sheehan, perhaps the bravest American of the last twenty years, was maligned by so many for insisting that the leaders of her country answer for the death of her child in a war with no clear objective and seemingly no end. So much of the media eviscerated Sheehan as a contemptible, Un-American woman dishonoring her son’s sacrifice. We have no reason or ideal so strong any more that requires blood to defend it. Perhaps decisions in the NSC and elsewhere would make for a more humane world if the potential sorrow of the Sheehans of the world were considered before anything else. Again, wishful thinking.

[i] George H.W. Bush will be, at times, referred to as Bush 41. His son, George W. Bush, will be referred to as Bush 43.

[ii] Warner, Margaret G. Bush Battles the ‘Wimp Factor’ 1987

[iii] A mistake his son, Bush 43, no doubt saw and attempted, disastrously, to stave off in his own decision making. Such comments as the now infamous “I’m the decider” show a reckless intellect starving to be decisive as the elder Bush was not. Bush 43 proves very much that, whether one agrees with the decisions or not, perhaps restraint and thoughtfulness are valuable tools to a President.

[iv] Kohn, Howard, Monks, Vicki. The Dirty Secrets of George Bush — Rolling Stone.1988.

[v] Rheem, Donald L. `Honest broker’ Scowcroft to head

[vi] Iran-Contra, one of several scandals in the Reagan years, never seemed to diminish, ultimately, Reagan. He seemed to be the Teflon Don of Presidents, another aspect of his character that one finds either fascinating or infuriating.

[vii] The Tower Commission, quoted in Inderfurth, Karl, Johnson, Loch K. Fateful Decisions: Inside the National Security Council 2004. P 342.

[viii] Grant, Rebecca L. Operation Just Cause and the U.S. Policy Process 1991. An excellent report and a key source for examining the process of decision making, with insights into how Bush reinvigorated the Panama question in the early days of the Administration.

[ix] Rothkopf, David J. Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power 2005. On collegiality, p. 261–263. On relations with Kissinger, Rothkopf dedicates much text, but for me, p. 151, 153, 155 offer some insight into what Scowcroft desired most from moving away from the Kissinger model.

[x] Gordon, Michael. Fighting in Panama: The Chief of Staff; Vital for the Invasion: Politically Attuned General. New York Times. 1989.

[xi] The US Invasion of Grenada.

[xii] Cole, Ronald. Grenada, Panama, and Haiti: Joint Operational Reform 1998–1999. Joint Forces Quarterly. P. 71.

[xiii] Cole, Ronald. Operation Just Cause Panama 1995. Joint History Office of the Joint Chiefs. P.73–74.

[xiv] Rothkopf, David J. Running the World: The inside story of the National Security Council and the architects of American Power 2005. The chapter titled “A Bright Line in History” offers an analysis of Bush’s NSC and their backgrounds, the unique spot in history they found themselves negotiating the end of the Cold War, as well as two key figures for purposes of space and theme I do not cover here in any depth: Dick Cheney, Bush 41’s SecDef, and James Baker III, the Secretary of State and longtime Bush friend.

[xv] Engelberg, Stephen, Gerth, Jeff. Bush and Noriega — An Examination of Their Ties. New York Times. 1988

[xvi] Kohn, Howard, Monks, Vicki. The Dirty Secrets of George Bush. Rolling Stone. 1988.

[xvii] Grant, Rebecca L. Operation Just Cause and the U.S. Policy Process. 1991. P. 12–15.

[xviii] Cole, Ronald. Operation Just Cause Panama 1995. Office of Military History. Cole covers this, among other pre-invasion issues, in his history for the Joint Chiefs History Office. Chapter one of that report is entirely dedicated to those issues, from which this information is culled.

[xix] In this article’s original form as a paper for a national security class, the professor, Lawrence Wilkerson, pointed out to me that aircraft carriers, the Navy’s chief asset, cannot traverse the canal.

[xx] Goodman, Amy, “How the Iraq War Began in Panama”: 1989 Invasion Set Path for Future U.S. Attacks (Full Interview) | Democracy Now!

[xxi] Cook, Mark, Cohen, Jeff. How Television Sold the Panama Invasion | FAIR . 1990.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Fernandez, Belen. The truth behind US’ Operation Just Cause in Panama — Al Jazeera English. 2016.

[xxiv] James A. Baker, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York,1995), 194. Quoted in Engel, Jeffrey. “A Better World . . . but Don’t Get Carried Away: The Foreign Policy of George H. W. Bush Twenty Years On*”



Husband of one, father of one, special education teacher, student of history, sometime author, all day dreamer.

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Noah Ingram

Husband of one, father of one, special education teacher, student of history, sometime author, all day dreamer.