As recently as last October, the official Pentagon view was that "Noriega is not worth one U.S. soldier's life" Two months later, in the largest military operation since the Vietnam war, the United States invaded Panama and toppled Noriega. And as the military forced its way into Panama, it also entered the war on drugs.
The military wasn't forced into Panama by George Bush. Far from it. Press accounts report that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. Maxwell Thurman, the U.S. commander in Panama, were two of the loudest voices urging military action against Noriega.
Bush and his spokesmen claim that the invasion was necessary; there was no other alternative. They may be right. Americans in Panama had been threatened, a Marine lieutenant killed. Noriega had declared war against the United States, and the Panama Canal may have been in danger.
But how did we arrive at this situation? Noriega had long been an ally of the United States. Reportedly, he was even on the payroll of the CIA. What turned him against us (and us against him)? The answer, in a nutshell, is drugs.
For years, Noriega allegedly allowed Colombian drug dealers to use Panamanian air strips as refueling stops on their trips to the United States. And Panamanian banks laundered much of the money the Colombians earned in the drug trade. Noriega's U.S. backers apparently were willing to look the other way; the intelligence he provided on other Latin American leaders was considered very valuable. Even protests by the Panamanian people didn't hurt Noriega's friendship with Washington.
But as America's drug war heated up, Noriega became a target too large to ignore. In February 1988, a federal grand jury in Miami indicted him on drug and racketeering charges. Noriega's once close relationship with the United States quickly deteriorated. The U.S. government used economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure to try to force Noriega to leave Panama, but he would have none of it. Finally, the military was sent in to find and arrest him. And the Bush administration quickly cited the drug indictments as justification.
The invasion of Panama marked a dramatic turn toward a more active role for the military in the battle against drug dealers. But while polls show strong support for the antidrug crusade, even its most ardent participants should think carefully about extending the Panamanian precedent. The results could be disastrous.
Initially, the Pentagon didn't want to enter the battle against drugs, feeling that doing so would divert it from its real mission of defending the United States from military attacks. But as political changes in Eastern Europe caused many people to question the need for a large military, the Pentagon reconsidered its position. Just a few days after Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said that he would scale back defense spending, the Pentagon said that it would like to play a larger role in the war on drugs. Coincidence? No.
Now, some Pentagon officials may honestly think that the Cold War isn't really over and that cuts in defense are ill-advised. However, few members of Congress seem to buy that argument. The military may think: "No one takes the Russians seriously anymore, but everyone thinks drugs are a major problem, so if we say we want to fight drugs, we can justify our large budget as part of the cost of battling drugs. But really our eyes will be on Russia." Of course, military commanders may just enjoy their big budgets, and find joining the drug war is the best way to keep them.
But the Pentagon was right the first time. It has no business in the drug war. The role of the military is to defend us from foreign aggression, and fighting the drug war only detracts from that mission. If the Navy is out trying to intercept Colombian drug smugglers, if the Air Force is monitoring private-plane flights into the United States, and the Marines are off arresting drug kingpins, who is going to defend us from the Soviet Union, Libya, Iran, or any other country that may really threaten us?
And what will we do when drug money corrupts the military? We have seen DEA agents, police officers, and, in Latin America, entire governments bought by drug dealers. If the military is used in the drug war, then drug dealers will certainly try to bribe our service personnel, too. I have faith that most of our soldiers are incorruptible, but the drug dealers will eventually find those who aren't. Before the first officer takes his or her first bribe, we should put an end to this folly and get the military out of the drug war.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Rumors of War".