Dwindling Options in Panama

A US Marine Corps LAV-25 in Panama.

Panama has bedeviled every American president since Lyndon Johnson, who was forced to open negotiations over the Panama Canal after anti-American riots broke out there in 1964. It is not too surprising that Panama became President Bush's first foreign policy crisis.

In its last year in office the Reagan Administration decided to force the removal of longtime U.S. ally General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the de facto leader of Panama. It left office without accomplishing that goal, suffering embarrassment and criticism. The Bush Administration has pursued the same objective but no more successfully. General Noriega has continued to resist American pressures and escaped a coup in early October, when the United States chose to stand by as the rebellion collapsed.

The Bush Administration was deluged with criticism for being unwilling to back its rhetorical opposition to Noriega with more concrete action. Believing that an ideal opportunity to unseat Noriega had been lost, critics charged that the Bush Administration was indecisive. At a minimum, the episode suggested that the United States was unprepared to aid the very event that it had been encouraging. The Panama problem now seems likely to continue to fester, with no clear U.S. strategy in place to deal with it.

Panama is an unusual case. It is one of the few Third World countries whose problems arouse domestic opinion, mainly because Americans still care about the canal, the basic reason for the long and intimate relationship between the United States and Panama. Furthermore, the United States has identified Noriega as a major actor in the drug trade, thus making him a public enemy in an area that some polls identify as Americans' most pressing concern. Finally, the close U.S. relationship with the Panamanian military since its creation confers a responsibility that makes the Panama issue difficult for the United States to walk away from. Yet, even though the United States has escalated Noriega's rule to a major foreign policy issue, the range of measures employed to deal

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