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The Panama Canal Treaties -- an insider's story of what happened

The Limits of Victory: The Ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties, by George D. Moffett III. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 261 pp. $24.95. AMONG the accomplishments of the Carter administration, the two treaties dealing with the Panama Canal stand near the top. George D. Moffett III, now a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor, was on the White House staff during the bitter and prolonged battle for ratification and passage of legislation to implement these treaties. He has written a book about it which is at once illuminating and unsatisfying. The illumination is in Mr. Moffett's elaboration of his thesis that the treaties represented a Pyrrhic victory for President Jimmy Carter. He contends that they required the expenditure of so much political energy and capital that nothing was left for other issues. The treaties, in this view, were part of a larger issue of America's role in the world and were supposed to be a step in the transition from a foreign policy of confrontation to a policy of accommodation. Carter won the battle of the treaties but lost the larger war.

The Senate vote on the treaties was 68 to 32, one more than the two-thirds required by the Constitution. Even to get this, the administration had to resort to dealmaking and logrolling with reluctant senators. Carter had taken office in 1977, hoping to use the treaties as an exercise in presidential leadership of public opinion. But in the end, neither the administration nor its opponents had made a dent: Opinion was substantially unchanged in either direction, and the public remained as opposed as before, with the opponents feeling much more strongly about the issue. In the two elections immediately after ratification (1978 and '79), 20 pro-treaty senators were defeated. Carter thinks the treaties were at least partly responsible for his own defeat in 1980.

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But Moffett does not think this was the highest price of ratification. The most vociferous of all the opponents were those who coalesced around what Moffett refers to as the New Right, which he defines as social-issue conservatives -- distinguished from business conservatives on the Old Right. (Business largely supported the treaties.) The New Right appealed to the people who had responded so enthusiastically to Ronald Reagan's attacks on the treaty negotiations during his 1976 run for the Republican presidential nomination that even the candidate was taken aback. They responded with equal enthusiasm during the Senate debate in 1978.

For the New Right, the Panama Canal was a visceral issue. The treaties represented a retreat from the good old days of Theodore Roosevelt, just one more example of American weakness, of the United States being humiliated and pushed around. The opponents were fed up. Moffett quotes Patrick Buchanan, then a columnist, now White House communications director: ``Sixty years ago this country would have responded to threats of riots and sabotage not with negotiations. General Torrijos would have been fortunate to make it to the foothills of the jungle before his successor was sworn in -- with a Marine holding the Bible.'' This mind-set goes a long way toward explaining the otherwise perplexing fixation of the Reagan administration on Nicaragua.

Although the New Right lost the battle against the Panama treaties, it gained experience, confidence, and organization. In Moffett's view, this helped set the stage for Reagan's election in 1980.

In the end, the book is unsatisfying because it leaves the reader wondering what the Carter administration might have done differently. Moffett does a good job of setting forth the political cost of the treaties, but he does not deal with the larger evils that were avoided or with the larger advantages that were gained.

The treaties had been under negotiation for 13 years. This process -- which President Gerald Ford had suspended for more than a year because he was intimidated by Reagan -- had to be completed sometime. Panama today is an island of stability in Central America. The canal operates efficiently. There are no anti-American riots, no Bible-toting Marines, no broken glass in the American embassy. Suppose the treaties had not been pressed on a reluctant Senate. Would the Carter administration -- would the US -- have been better off with a possible hostage crisis in Panama at the same time it had a hostage crisis in Iran?

Nor does Moffett give more than passing attention to the problem of legislation to implement the treaties. The ratification victory in the Senate was very nearly lost in the House over what should have been a routine housekeeping bill. In the process, the administration temporized over its Nicaragua policy in order not to alienate Somoza supporters in the House. This contributed to (though it did not by itself cause) the polarization that has since occurred in Nicaragua.

Finally, it is too bad that the author, editor, and proofreaders have been so careless about details: President Robles of Panama is given the first name Winston instead of Marco; Steven Rosenfeld of the Washington Post is sometimes Steven, sometimes Stephen; Cecil Crabb of Louisiana State University is Crabbe; and so on.

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Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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