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Bush's Gift to General Noriega

GEORGE BUSH has played right into Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's hands. The Panamanian dictator is battling his own people, most of whom want to oust him. The world witnessed on May 10 General Noriega's paramilitary thugs savagely beating one of his principal domestic political foes. Outside observers caught Noriega stealing the May 7 presidential election for his pet candidate.

In the face of these problems, Noriega is pursuing a strategy long favored by tyrants: trying to change people's minds about what is at stake in civic unrest. Instead of seeing unrest as a domestic political struggle that pits the tyrant and his clique against the people, the tyrant wants citizens to see the events as an international conflict between the tyrant's state and a hostile foreign power. The tyrant can then save himself and perpetuate his rule by appealing to the people's patriotic fervor.

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Noriega has surely been hoping that the United States government would make some highly visible show of force. He could then point to this action when he told the Panamanian people that they faced a serious foreign threat.

Since 1986, Noriega has portrayed himself as a nationalistic leader rallying his country to fend off interference by Washington. During the ongoing crisis, Noriega has tried to pin the label ``Yankee stooges'' on his domestic opponents.

Now, as the Los Angeles Times put it in a May 11 editorial, President Bush has ``hand[ed] the general an issue.'' When Mr. Bush announced that he was sending 1,900 additional US soldiers and marines into Panama, the Noriega-controlled government called Bush's action ``tantamount to an act of war.'' Since then the Noriega-controlled news media have been trying to focus the Panamanian public's attention on the arriving US forces. On May 17, in his first comments after the election, Noriega termed Bush's dispatch of troops an ``act of aggression.'' He told interviewers: ``This is not one man's struggle. ... It's Panama's fight against an empire.''

Guillermo Endara, the opposition coalition's candidate for president of Panama, says that Bush is helping Noriega by sending these extra US troops.

Bush says he has sent in the extra troops to protect the US forces and civilians already in Panama. But US military officials in Panama say that US forces there are not under attack. At a White House meeting Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed to precisely this fact in arguing strongly against sending in the additional troops.

Bush wants to display toughness and resolve - for the TV cameras. Some public-relations expert made sure that cameras filmed the new troops - armed and in full combat gear - getting on their planes in the US. But when they disembarked in Panama, the troops were unarmed.

Bush has displayed his resolve, but we should not ignore the fact that his show of force has harmed, rather than helped, the cause of Panamanian liberty.

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Furthermore, Bush is encouraging Panamanians to think they should depend on Washington to solve their problems. Bush says he does not want this to happen. But he is in the position of a person who hands out welfare payments and says he does not want to encourage people to depend on welfare. Instead of shaping their own destiny, many Panamanians are now waiting to see what Washington will do for them.

On May 16, the New York Times published an article describing what I would call ``Washington watchers'' among Noriega's opponents - people whose emotional and political life centers on hoping the US military will invade. When the US government hints or gives some sign the US military will intervene they are elated. Any indications to the contrary make them depressed. One such Panamanian told the Times reporter that the day she concluded that the US was not going to invade was ``the worst day'' of her life. Bush's Panamanian policy discourages Noriega's opponents from relying on their own resources and blocks the development of a healthy, indigenous political culture.

Extending the welfare-state analogy, one might ask whether President Bush should be asking American taxpayers to subsidize political changes in Panama. The US Constitution entrusts to American public officials the tasks of providing for the common defense of American territory and securing the blessings of liberty to our country's inhabitants. Nowhere does it suggest public officials should have US taxpayers subsidize the costs of overthrowing every corrupt despot in the world.

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