By Ryan McMaken
By 1989, it had become apparent to all — everyone except the CIA, of course — that the Soviet economy, and thus the Soviet state was in very deep trouble.
In November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down in the face of Soviet impotence. And, with the Cold-War corpse not even cold yet, the US used the newly apparent Soviet weakness as an opportunity to begin invading a variety of foreign countries. These included Iraq, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia.
But first on the list was Panama in December 1989. At the time, the Panamanian state was an authoritarian regime that stayed in power largely due to US support, and functioned as an American puppet state in Central America where Communists were often successful in overthrowing right-wing dictatorships. The US regime's man in Panama was Manuel Noriega, who just died at 83 years of age. After years in US, French, and Panamanian prisons, Noriega has been forgotten by nearly everyone. But, after he stopped taking orders from Washington, Noriega became the first in a long line of foreign politicians who were held up as the next "Hitler" by the American propaganda machine. This was done in order to justify what would become an endless policy of invading tiny foreign countries that are no threat to the US — all done in the name of "humanitarian" intervention.
Writing in April 1990, Murray Rothbard summed up the situation in Panama:
The U.S. invasion of Panama was the first act of military intervention in the new post-Cold War world — the first act of war since 1945 where the United States has not used Communism or "Marxism-Leninism" as the effective all-purpose alibi. Coming so soon after the end of the Cold War, the invasion was confused and chaotic — a hallmark of Bushian policy in general. Bush's list of alleged reasons for the invasion were a grab-bag of haphazard and inconsistent arguments — none of which made much sense.
It's almost darkly comedic how easy it has been to convince the American people to go along with nearly any justification for invading a foreign country, no matter how flimsy. It may be hard for my younger readers to comprehend, but in the late 80s, the American public was so hysterical with fear over street drugs, that it struck many Americans as perfectly reasonable to invade a foreign country, burn down a neighborhood, and send the US Army to lay siege to Panama's presidential headquarters to catch a single drug kingpin.
The US would perfect aspects of this routine as time went on. In 1991, Saddam Hussein was the next Hitler, with the media hinting that if left unchecked, Hussein would invade the entire Middle East. "He gassed his own people!" was the endless refrain. The other justification was that Saddam's government had invaded another country. Rothbard, of course, noted the irony of this "justification":
But, "he invaded a small country." Yes, indeed he did. But, are we ungracious for bringing up the undoubted fact that none other than George Bush, not long ago, invaded a very small country: Panama? And to the unanimous huzzahs of the same U.S. media and politicians now denouncing Saddam?
By the Clinton years, Slobodan Milošević was the new next Hitler.
The downside of these new Hitlers, of course, was that any reasonable person could see that none of them were any threat whatsoever to the United States.
Even the call for "humanitarian" action rung a little untrue for more astute observers. After all, it struck many people as curious as to why Serbia required bombing for its human rights violations while the genocide in Rwanda — which was occurring right around the same time — was steadfastly ignored by Washington. If human rights were such a major concern for the US state in the 90s, why was there no invasion of North Korea in response to the horrors of the death camps there?
New life was breathed into the military-interventionist camp after 2001 by Osama bin Laden. But "humanitarian" missions and the search for the next Hitler continue to this day.
In 2011, the usual tactics were employed to justify the invasion of Libya — which only made the country a breeding ground for ISIS and Al Qaeda.
And today, of course, we hear the same things about Bashar Assad in Syria. Like Noriega, Hussein, Milošević, and Qaddafi before him, Assad is obviously no threat to the US or its residents. Indeed, Assad is fighting people who potentially are a threat to US residents. But, since the US military establishment wants Assad gone, some excuse must be manufactured for an invasion.
Assad is simply the latest iteration of Noriega: a foreign strongman whose every vice and misdeed — as with every political leader, there are plenty of them — must be magnified in an attempt to justify yet another foreign invasion.
Ultimately, Rothbard concluded that these methods can be employed against any regime on earth, and wrote sarcastically in 1994: "'we cannot stand idly by' while anyone anywhere starves, hits someone over the head, is undemocratic, or commits a Hate Crime.":
We must face the fact that there is not a single country in the world that measures up to the lofty moral and social standards that are the hallmark of the U.S.A.: even Canada is delinquent and deserves a whiff of grape. There is not a single country in the world which, like the U.S., reeks of democracy and "human rights," and is free of crime and murder and hate thoughts and undemocratic deeds. Very few other countries are as Politically Correct as the U.S., or have the wit to impose a massively statist program in the name of "freedom," "free trade," "multiculturalism," and "expanding democracy."
Thus the destruction of Manuel Noriega and his regime illustrated what was to come during the next 25 years of American foreign policy: target a foreign regime that poses no threat to the US, and manufacture a nice-sounding reason for doing so. The 1989 Panama invasion is a reminder of just how little has changed since the Cold War ended. The methods are the same, and only the names have changed.
This article was originally published at The Mises Institute.