It was a rare, fleeting, ugly glimpse into the dark underside of American foreign policy, a world that few of us imagine.
In sworn testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee chaired by John Kerry (D-Mass.), a former high Panamanian official named Jose Blandon described the intricate, sometimes incredible web of corruption and cynicism that made Panama's dictator, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, at once a U.S. ally and CIA operative while at the same moment a known godfather of the world narcotics trade. Blandon's revelations came in the wake of Noriega's indictment by two federal grand juries in Florida for his role in hemispheric drug trafficking.
The senators, of course, were duly shocked. But what has been lost in all the drama and double-dealing is just how much such cynicism and duplicity, such mockery of ideals and public purpose, have become a secret staple of our foreign policy. We are not dealing here, we should be clear, with the usual run of CIA plots and subversions that have been so widely documented over the past four decades--of cabinet ministers or labor leaders quietly bribed, editors and politicians subsidized for their loyalties, even disaffected or suitably ambitious military officers induced to assassinate or to overthrow unwieldy foreign leaders.
No, from his vantage point as one of Noriega's trusted advisers, Blandon has peeled back a layer still deeper in which the United States knowingly, willfully strikes an alliance with people and practices recognized as criminal in every civilized society on Earth and against which we have supposedly pledged our fortune and honor as a nation. It is a foreign policy not only of hypocrisy but of thuggery.
Yet the truly shocking truth about the Blandon expose is not that Noriega's corruption was winked at, aided and abetted by major precincts of the U.S. government from the State Department to the Pentagon to international aid agencies and financial institutions, but that it was, in the end, part of a venerable tradition. Consider a few (and only a few) of the precedents, large and small:
--The CIA and its predecessor, the old Office of Strategic Services, harbored and hired Nazi war criminals as ready allies against the Soviets in the early days of the Cold War. For the SS and Gestapo officers, no questions were asked.
--Around the world we have enlisted thieves and murderers in the name of national security: Sumatran pirates to destabilize the Sukarno regime in Indonesia in the 1950s; Kurdish bandits to coax Iran into oil concessions in the 1960s; the Southeast Asian drug lords of the 1960s and '70s with whom the CIA became a stoic, silent partner while the flood of heroin and marijuana ravaged our own forces in Vietnam as well as in American cities.
--For two decades the U.S. Office of Public Safety, an obscure wing of our aid program, gave discreet assistance and sanction to brutal and corrupt police forces throughout the Third World, linking America in gruesome complicity with the tiger cages in South Vietnam and the torture chambers of Latin America, until the OPS was abolished by Congress in 1975.
--For even longer we have been secretly allied with the most corrupt elements of the Mexican regime, CIA clients ranging from the ubiquitous federales to prominent politicians in Mexico City, their enterprises ranging from the narcotics trade to stolen cars. When a San Diego federal prosecutor turned up an edge of the blanket in the early 1980s, a Tijuana equivalent of the Noriega connection, the attorney was summarily removed by Washington, the indictment dropped.
The list could go on and on. As a government we have grown dangerously, shamelessly blind to the perverse, sometimes wild expedience of our actions. All over Washington--today no less than when I served there in the late 1960s and early 1970s--there are ordinary, otherwise decent bureaucrats, men with families and mortgages and consciences, who routinely dispense millions of dollars and national favors to the sort of people whom they warn their children against.
They do so, of course, under the old dispensation of anti-communism, the old Faustian bargain of foreign policy in which we have so feared our enemies, so doubted our own capacity, that we have literally and cravenly contracted with assorted devils.
That hidden and squalid reality of foreign affairs seldom comes home as it did last week in Blandon's testimony. The moment of truth may be short-lived. Noriega's prestigious attorneys are already reported to be threatening the U.S. government with some of the dictator's secret "files," said to be embarrassing to some of our current presidential candidates. Already the old familiar charges have surfaced that Blandon himself is a communist, or at least a trouble-making dupe.
Meanwhile, of course, we may be sure that there are, as always, other Noriegas, other arrangements, other subsidies and expedients, and that they will go on.