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It May Have Been Heaven-Sent, but We'll Still Pay a Price : Panama: Bush was not being a wimp this time. Still, the action carries the look of cleaning up the Gipper's mess.

December 21, 1989|GREGORY F. TREVERTON | Gregory F. Treverton, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, served on the National Security Council during the Carter Administration. He is the author of "Covert Action: The Limits to Intervention in the Postwar World. (Basic Books, 1989).

Whatever else may be said about the American invasion of Panama, it cannot be said to be a surprise. Ever since the Reagan Administration committed the United States to ridding Panama of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, it has only been a matter of time--and occasion.

Noriega's loose talk of war and the sad shooting death of an American Marine last weekend were heaven-sent for the Bush Administration. The President has been decisive; no wimp here. Democrats in Congress will rally round their commander-in-chief; they always do, even in cases of failure, and this is so far a success. China will recede from the headlines. Mikhail Gorbachev must protest but do no more; given the business on his agenda, Panama barely registers.

There is the question of Americans held hostage and the awkward possibility of continuing resistance. That cannot be ruled out but does not seem likely. If the United States cannot impose its will by military force in Panama, where but Grenada can it? At this distance, the operation looks much better in military terms than that tattered 1983 affair, the result, no doubt, of years of planning.

A more likely awkwardness is what to do next in governing Panama. Military planning hardly guarantees political success; witness Britain, whose plan for the Suez invasion of 1956 amounted to "cross the canal and turn left toward Cairo." The United States succeeded in Grenada--and much earlier in the Dominican Republic--in turning invasion into tolerable democracy, but those successes are no guarantee for Panama.

The Panamanian opposition has proven feckless--perhaps enfeebled by waiting for Uncle Sam to lug them to power--and America's designated successor, Guillermo Endara, will suffer the disadvantage of having been installed by the United States, a liability even in Panama and even after Noriega.

Latin American friends of the United States are crying "intervention," and they have a point. Panama will make it harder still for the United States to gather inter-American cooperation the next time around. Calls from Washington will sound like attempts to round up a lynch mob.

Yet if the Reagan Administration was unwise not to give the Latin Americans a chance to deal with Noriega in the first place, even enthusiasts of inter-American cooperation have to grant that once, belatedly, the Bush Administration did so, the Latin Americans dropped the ball. Latin American criticisms now will be discounted by the knowledge that, privately, they too did not much mind if the United States disposed of Noriega.

Privately, many of those same Latin Americans feel the same way about Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. The invasion of Panama may have a salutary effect on Ortega, who will feel confirmed in his view that the United States might indeed be stupid enough to invade Nicaragua.

Beyond all the satisfaction, however, there is the nagging question of whether it was all worth it. For all his tawdriness, Noriega was a burr under America's saddle, not a dagger at its heart. An invasion with a decent explanation is still an invasion, a last resort when critical American interests are at stake. That does not seem the case in Panama. Our invasion does not reflect the kind of behavior we seek to promote--by anyone else anywhere.

And so the invasion will be criticized by Monday-morning quarterbacks as intemperate intervention. I doubt that it was a close call for the Bush Administration. And if there is a fault, it is shared widely--by the Reagan Administration, which set the United States on the track to invasion, and by Congress and the public, left and right, which having grumpily debated covert intervention in Nicaragua happily united in promoting overt attempts to topple Noriega. I say, give both credit and fault for this one to the Gipper.

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