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Panama: The Whole Story.

Panama: The Whole Story. Kevin Buckley. Simon & Schuster $21.95. Relations between the U.S. government and the nasty Third World dictator were collaborative, even cordial. They secretly joined forces against governments that seemed most threatening to U.S. interests at the time. All the while, evidence that the dictator was abusing his own people, not to mention double-dealing behind Washington's back, was pooh-poohed both publicly and privately by U.S. officials. Realpolitik, it was said, dictated discretion. After this had gone on quietly for years, the dictator's unforeseen outbursts of brutality made the policy untenable. Haltingly at first, then with gathering momentum, Washington changed its attitude toward the dictator from indulgence to vilification. An avalanche of officially sourced news coverage painted the U.S.'s former partner as Public Enemy Number One. His ugly mug disgraced magazine covers. And his removal from power became a minimum condition of U.S. national security.

After failed negotiations and much hand-wringing in Congress and the bureaucracy-a process marked by the usual leaked recriminations about who was to blame for the mess in the first place-the president finally ordered U.S. troops to fight the dictator. In a swift campaign marked by considerable American military prowess and charges that U.S. firepower had been employed with insufficient regard for civilian life, America dealt the dictator the defeat of his life.

A thumbnail history of George Bush's showdown with Saddam Hussein, right? Well, yes. But change a phrase here and there and you've also got a synopsis of the clash between the United States and Panama's Manuel Antonio Noriega, the subject of Kevin Buckley's thorough, readable new book.

Buckley's book is particularly strong in its treatment of two themes. First, the author explains in detail the role Panama's peculiar internal politics played in driving the crisis forward. Most versions of the story are told as if all the action took place in Washington, or are presented as catalogs of Noriega's personal pathologies. Buckley reminds us that the events that culminated in the U.S. invasion were the most violent in Panama since the United States carved the country out of Colombia in 1903. And a main reason these events happened was the Panamanians' own failure to develop political institutions or movements that could have established a legitimate government without U.S. help.

Second, Buckley emphasizes the role of U.S. electoral politics in the unfolding of the crisis. In 1988, a presidential election year, drugs were the dominant issue, and it was by no means clear who would win the right to succeed Ronald Reagan. Former CIA director and Noriega contact George Bush, mindful that Noriega might have some bombshell on him in his intelligence files, did not want a messy confrontation in Panama that might spoil his election chances. At the same time, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis refused to let the issue of Noriega's indictment on drug trafficking die, accusing Reagan-Bush of negotiating with dope peddlers." Bashing Noriega-who, though important to the Medellin cartel's activities, was by no means the boss of the operation-was a cheap way for politicians on both sides of the partisan stripe to score points with the voters. Noriega's main nemeses in Congress were liberal John Kerry and conservatives Jesse Helms and Al D'Amato. Noriega astutely exploited the climate of election-year demagogy, leading the Reagan administration along for weeks in a phony mid-negotiation 1988 process before finally telling the U.S. he had no intention of leaving after all.

Unfortunately for Buckley, Panama: The Whole Story appears about 18 months after the military intervention that ousted Noriega and more than a year since the publication of two superb and widely read versions of the same story: Frederick Kempe's Divorcing the Dictator and John Dinges's Our Man in Panama. Both of those books packed more reportorial punch than Buckley's effort, which leans heavily on contemporaneous press accounts and oft-quoted sources.

One source Buckley probably relies on a bit too much is Guillermo Sanchez Borbon, a brave but excitable Panamanian journalist. Sanchez Borbon, coauthor of a lurid book of his own about the Noriega years, Time of the Dictators, has been the font of many an intriguing but unproven account of the dictator's perfidy, several of which Buckley repeats.

Still, the timeliness of the book is enhanced by Noriega's impending trial in Miami, at which new information about his past dealings with the U.S. may yet emerge, and by the continuing fallout of the Gulf war. Whether or not you think the invasion of Panama and the war to liberate Kuwait were justified (I think they were), there's plenty to be learned by going back over the trail of U.S. policy mistakes that helped make force necessary. In both Iraq and Panama, war was mostly the result of the enemy's venality or intransigence. But in both cases, war became necessary because U.S. statecraft, intelligence gathering, and diplomacy failed or were abused in the name of realpolitik. Iraq and Panama suggest that, if what we want is to secure our interests abroad without having to go to war, then a "realistic" way to choose allies should factor in their dedication to mushy liberal notions like human rights, honesty, and democracy. Now all we need is a foolproof, perfectly objective way to measure those qualities in all leaders, at all times, in every place.

Charles Lane
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Author:Lane, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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