Gunboat Democracy

May 12, 2004 Topic: Security

Gunboat Democracy

The triumph of liberal democracy in America and elsewhere reveals that we must have been doing something right. That fact alone should give pause to critics of U.S. intentions in Iraq and elsewhere.

Last November, in a letter to the New York Times, the Brookings Institution's Roberta Cohen disparaged the United States' efforts to promote democracy in Iraq, writing, "what we should have learned from Vietnam is that democracy cannot be brought to countries on the barrel of a gun." Yet, over the past two decades the United States has done exactly that. The invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989 are unequivocal examples of the United States' successful promotion of democracy through the barrel of a gun.

Unilateral American force in Grenada and Panama removed thuggish regimes from power and replaced them with democracies that have flourished ever since. Today, the people of Grenada and Panama enjoy some of the most competitive and representative systems in Latin America. The democracy ranking organization Freedom House currently places Panama and Grenada alongside Japan and well above Argentina, Mexico and South Korea.

Of the many lessons these two invasions reveal, the initial criticisms of the operations particularly illuminate the current debate over the use of American force in the world.  In both cases, critics quickly labeled U.S. actions as "imperialist", and condemned them as new instances of Uncle Sam wielding its overwhelming power in its traditional "backyard," the Caribbean and Central America, in order to pursue its own self-interested security, political and economic interests. 

A number of critics concluded that the Grenada invasion was a cynical stunt intended to divert the American public's attention from the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marines' barracks in  Lebanon that occurred a few days before the invasion. However, recently declassified documents reveal that President Reagan's advisors recommended he delay or call off the invasion out of concern it would appear to have been influenced by the events in Beirut. Reagan apparently responded that, "if it was the right thing to do a couple of days ago, then it's the right thing to do now."

In addition, numerous pundits and academics in the United States and abroad immediately equated the Reagan administration's actions in Grenada with the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan a few years earlier.  Two decades of democratic practice in Grenada is only one of many indicators suggesting no equivalency ever existed between the two cases. 

In the case of Panama, critics cited the widespread looting that engulfed Panama City in the immediate aftermath of the invasion as proof that the operation had made things worse, not better, for the Panamanian people. Observers also made much of the fact that for several months after the invasion, a pro-Noriega guerrilla movement was still active in the country. Yet, in less than a year, the insurgency was quelled, damage from the invasion had been largely repaired, the Panamanian economy was back on its feet and American troops were on their way home. Five years later, Panama held the first truly democratic and competitive election in its history and has not looked back since.

An even more pervasive accusation was that the Bush Administration manufactured the invasion's justifications-the need to protect American lives, safeguard the canal, apprehend strongman Manuel Noriega and promote democracy-in order to shield the invasion's true reason, which was to hold onto the canal after its planned turnover to Panamanian control on December 31, 1999. Today, of course, this notion seems absurd; yet, it was widely shared by critics for years following the invasion. Ironically, presently many Panamanians are eager to see the United States military return to the Canal Zone.

The apparent disconnect between what critics claimed and what actually occurred in these two cases sheds crucial light on the larger question of the motives behind the U.S. application of armed force. In addition to Grenada and Panama, the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo are instances where American power has been used for the net benefit of the citizens of the involved countries. Even the infamous "Black Hawk down" incident in Mogadishu in 1993 occurred during an operation that was motivated infinitely more by starving Somalis than by any U.S. geopolitical considerations in the region.

As reflected in Ms. Cohen's comments, much of the academic and policy critiques of American use of force are firmly grounded in the Vietnam experience.  However, these critiques fail to account for the motivations of numerous foreign policy actions since Vietnam. Instead of examining these events' actual motivations and intentions, these critics retain "No War!" as both their mantra and intellectual foundation.  Yet, these individuals need only talk with citizens in Grenada or Panama to understand that, when done properly, U.S. military action has been the figurative and literal "external shock" that allowed democratic institutions to take hold.

During the Cold War, many intellectuals criticized U.S. policies (e.g. Vietnam, the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs, U.S. nuclear policy in Europe) to the extent that an observer might have concluded the United States lost the Cold War and was more evil than its Soviet counterpart. Yet, the end of the Cold War and the implosion of communism as a global rival to Western liberalism now allows one to place into context much of the putative perfidy the United States committed during this era.  The triumph of liberal democracy in America and elsewhere reveals that we must have been doing something right. That fact alone should give pause to critics of U.S. intentions in Iraq and elsewhere.


Russell Crandall is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Davidson College.