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US Shouldn't Intervene in Panama

PERHAPS the most disturbing outcome of the recent failed coup against Gen. Manuel Noriega is that almost all opposition in the United States to direct military intervention to oust the Panamanian dictator has been silenced. The barrage of criticism by congressional leaders scolding the Bush administration for not providing further military assistance to mutinous officers of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) is a strong indication of the growing pressures on the White House to remove General Noriega at any cost.

Instead of voicing concern over the use of US troops in an attempt to block pro-Noriega forces from the site of the Oct. 3 fighting - which constituted a serious breach of the canal treaties as well as an illegal tampering in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation - both Democrats and Republicans have rushed to assail Mr. Bush's failure fully to back the rebel officers.

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The issue of intervention has been conspicuously absent from the criticisms leveled at the administration since the coup attempt. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman David Boren asserted that US forces should have ``lent a helping hand'' to the rebels. Sen. Dennis DeConcini said further US military assistance to the rebel troops ``could have made the difference.''

Some congressional leaders, decrying Noriega's ability to thumb his nose at Washington with impunity, are touting armed intervention as the only viable means to remove the strongman. As even congressional Democrats urged that something be done ``militarily,'' President Bush, in an Oct. 5 meeting with a Panamanian democratic leader, said: ``Just because we didn't help this time, doesn't mean that we can't help next time.'' The president and several senators have since agreed to clarify the rules for intelligence activities, from which a more aggressive plan against Noriega would be ``inevitable,'' according to one administration source.

REGARDLESS of the despicable nature of Noriega and the fraudulent means by which he has maintained power, the administration and Congress must consider long-term US interests in upholding the rights of national sovereignty, commitments under the Organization of American States and United Nations charters, and the negative consequences throughout Latin America that will inevitably result from any Washington effort to overthrow the dictator.

Washington's advocacy of intervention not only strengthens Noriega, at least temporarily, by prompting the growth of traditional anti-American sentiment in his country, but also increases the dependence of anti-Noriega leaders on the White House to oust the dictator. Instead of developing an authentic domestic effort to work against Noriega, opposition leaders are calling on others to hand them their freedom. Rather than emulate the citizens of South Korea, the Philippines, Iran, and Nicaragua in ousting hated dictators at great risk to themselves, Panamanian opposition leader Ricardo Arias Calderon on Oct. 5 bitterly characterized the US role in the failed coup as ``the dog that barks but does not bite.'' One of his colleagues added, ``We cannot fight a monster like Noriega with rocks.''

Even more alarming is the relative ease with which self-serving Noriega dissidents in the PDF were nearly able to manipulate Washington's enmity against Noriega to achieve their own goals. Far from seeking the establishment of a democratic regime in the nation, the bulk of the lower-ranking mutinous officers had their minds set on replacing the PDF's senior officers. These posts would have enabled the rebellious officers to reap the illicit monetary benefits which have historically come from holding senior military ranks in Panama.

If the Panamanians are to be rid of their military dictatorship, they must demonstrate sufficient fortitude to do the job without interference by the White House, which, for years, showed little interest in promoting democracy in the country before its falling out with Noriega. The US should not be in the business of forcibly installing and ousting foreign governments, however abhorrent.

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