Twenty years after the U.S. invasion of Panama, America's ambassador to the United Nations at the time considers it an important stepping stone to the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
On Dec. 20, 1989, nearly 30,000 U.S. troops invaded Panama and captured the country’s military dictator, Gen. Manuel Noriega. The invasion lasted just over a month, and the U.S. military suffered just 23 casualties. Thomas Pickering was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the conflict, and a key advisor to President George H.W. Bush as the United States solidified its position in Central America and ushered in a new age of interventionism in the post-Cold War era. For Pickering, however, the conflict now has a different legacy: He believes that the invasion of Panama helped lead America into the Iraq war.
The brief and relatively bloodless war in Panama convinced Americans that the use of force could easily solve their problems overseas — and, what’s more, that the United States could largely accomplish this on its own. The United States did not seek international approval before invading Panama, as it did before the first Gulf War. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, Pickering noted that before the 1990 invasion of Iraq, "[W]e undertook quite a remarkable series of activities inside the Security Council," including resolutions that imposed economic sanctions on the country and, after the war, the establishment of a peacekeeping force to protect the Kurds.
Multilateralism came with costs, however. In their joint memoir, A World Transformed, Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, specifically cited the limits of the U.N. mandate to liberate Kuwait as a primary reason they didn’t topple Saddam Hussein in 1990. But Panama showed what could be done when the United States acted alone. Fewer allies meant fewer restrictions. This was a lesson too well-learned — as the 2003 invasion of Iraq proved.
Panama had a far deeper imprint on U.S. policymakers than on the public. "Having used force in Panama, and in Grenada in 1983, there was a propensity in Washington to think that force could provide a result more rapidly, more effectively, more surgically than diplomacy," Pickering said.
Indeed, from the perspective of the United States, the Panama invasion seemed to offer tantalizing results. "U.S. interests were advanced and protected," Pickering argued. The invasion succeeded in securing the Panama Canal, which was subsequently returned to Panama in 2000. "The canal’s operation — which is our primary strategic interest in Panama — is still ongoing, and now the Panamanians are enlarging the canal," he said. The invasion also removed a brutal dictator, albeit one the United States had supported for many years, Pickering says — another parallel with the regime of Saddam Hussein. And it "allowed for a change in government that was rocky, but not totally completely feckless or failing," demonstrating the benefits of U.S. power.
The brilliant success of the Panama invasion contributed to a feeling of American invincibility. Influential conservative commentators repeatedly cited its success as a reason to invade Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. "The Falklands, Panama, Serbia, and the Middle East all demonstrate the power of legitimate governments over dictatorships," wrote Victor Davis Hanson, explaining how the same would be the case with Iraq. In his influential essay "Power and Weakness," Robert Kagan argued that "with the check of Soviet power removed, the United States was free to intervene practically wherever and whenever it chose — a fact reflected in the proliferation of overseas military interventions that began during the first Bush administration with the invasion of Panama in 1989." Finally, George Will praised the invasion as "punctuat[ing] a decade of recovery of national purposefulness and a year of militant democracy."
America’s faith in its ability to solve the world’s problems by military force alone, which existed on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, grew largely out of the U.S. experience in Panama. The invasion’s success meant "the notion that the international community had to be engaged … was ignored," Pickering said.
Like Panama, Iraq was a war of choice. The light American footprint that had achieved results in the small Central American country convinced figures such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the same strategy would work in Iraq. Furthermore, the ability of the United States to depose Noriega and then swiftly withdraw from Panama contributed to the belief that nation-building was unnecessary in Iraq. "Iraq in 2003 was all of that shortsightedness in spades," concluded Pickering. "After all, the defense secretary said we didn’t want anybody else’s help, we didn’t need anybody’s help — we were going to do it all ourselves."
That sounds just like the strategy that worked in Panama, 20 years ago.