The Skeptics

Manuel Noriega and the Fragility of America's Alliances

A man who was once known as one of the world’s most infamous and colorful dictators died after several months in a coma on May 29. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the general that pulled the strings of Panamanian politics for six years—the “pineapple-faced,” short, tough guy who liked to don his military uniform when addressing large crowds—passed away at the age of eighty-three.

To call Noriega a criminal or an old Latin American strongman who ruled with an iron fist would be to sully his brutish reputation. Noriega was nothing but a survivor: someone who seemed to have no ideology but a thirst for power; a former army man that worked his way up the Panamanian military chain-of-command, working with pretty much anybody who would make him rich or solidify his reputation as a ruler. At heart, Noriega was an opportunist who relished playing regional powers against one another, working as an intelligence asset for the CIA while at the same time opening up Panama’s banking system to the Colombian drug lords who were looking to export their product to the U.S. market.

The Panamanian general’s fall from grace began with the murder of Hugo Spadafora—Noriega’s loudest critic—by pro-government goons, criminals who preceded to behead his corpse in the process. The United States and the international community denounced the murder as a heinous act perpetrated by savage men with no moral compass, reporting to a dictator who mowed down anyone in his way.

Over the next four years, Noriega’s relationship with Washington collapsed. In 1988, two grand juries indicted him for cooperating with drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, effectively transforming Panama into a safe haven for Colombian traffickers to export their product (for a fee, of course). In 1989, President George H. W. Bush authorized the largest U.S. invasion since Vietnam, deploying twenty-five thousand U.S. troops to overthrow Noriega and replace his narco-tinged government with something friendlier to the United States. Several weeks later, Noriega surrendered to U.S. authorities, stood trial in Miami, and was convicted in 1992 on eight counts. He spent the last twenty-five years of his life in prison.

Noriega’s story is interesting and full of Cold War intrigue fitting for a Hollywood script. But his death is also an opportune time for the United States to reflect on how complicated alliance building can be and how quickly a partnership can disintegrate.

Noriega is a perfect example of one of George Washington’s most famous lessons, made centuries earlier: the best thing that the Republic could do is “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.”

Throughout history, the United States has chosen to form alliances with authoritarian leaders—in many cases after deciding that forging pragmatic, issue-specific ties to dictators in strategic regions of the world would promote U.S. national-security interests or strengthen Washington’s geopolitical influence. Whether it’s Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, or Saudi Arabia’s royal family, American presidents—Republican and Democrat—have wagered that forging bonds with leaders who may not share U.S. values or love for representative democracy can still serve a critical function. Perhaps that function is acquiring intelligence information that Washington would not otherwise obtain. Or it could be something as simple as reliable over flight rights or permission to build an operations base on its soil.

Frequently, these relationships run their course, maybe due to events outside U.S. control, over genuine concerns about human rights, or because the intelligence is no longer useful. Manuel Noriega is on a long list of former allies who were discarded once their presence in power started to accumulate too many problems. The Philippines’s Fernando Marcos, Iran’s Reza Pahlavi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh are all included as well. When the intelligence runs dry, an autocrat’s foreign policy turns in a less friendly direction, or their behavior becomes too oppressive to condone or ignore, American presidents pull the plug. Bonds often outlive their usefulness.

All these centuries later, George Washington’s final message to the American people remains poignant: there are no permanent alliances (or adversaries) in this world—there are only common interests that bind countries together at specific times in history. Noriega’s death reminds of us of how spot-on America’s first commander-in-chief was on that day in 1796.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

Image: Panamanian flag at sunrise. Pixabay/Public domain