This is a paper I wrote on the invasion for an Issues In World Politics course. Its primary focus is the U.S. decisionmaking process that led up to the overthrow of the Noriega regime. And it got me an A! The sources at the bottom are tremendous - if you have to do a paper on the topic, I highly recommend all of the books listed.

Anatomy Of The Crisis

Shortly after midnight on December 20, 1989, the United States unleashed a full-scale military attack on the country of Panama with one goal in mind: to capture and extradite Panamanian Defense Forces commander Manuel Noriega to stand trial in the United States on charges of drug trafficking. After a swift attack on the central headquarters of Noriega and his supporters, Noriega was taken to Miami, Florida, and eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison. Operation Just Cause had been, in President George Bush’s eyes, the inevitable result of Noriega’s refusal to turn himself over to authorities and to allow Panama to hold free and fair elections for a democratic government. However, the decision processes that led up to the midnight raid were actually an often muddied evolution of the core objectives of the United States administration in dealing with Panama and their de facto leader, Noriega.

First, the United States government under Ronald Reagan appeared to support Noriega as a valuable asset in the fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and other Communist elements. Later, as the drug charges against Noriega became a focal point of U.S. media attention in Panama, the American objective shifted from containing Noriega to removing him from power. Finally, as George Bush assumed the Presidency, and Noriega became increasingly reckless and intolerant of his opposition, it was decided that it was in Panama’s interest to remove Noriega, quash the Panamanian Defense Forces’ (PDF) power, and create a free democracy in the country.

In turn, each of these objectives led to various actions against Noriega – from diplomatic discussions and economic sanctions, to covert attempts to turn the Panamanian people against Noriega, and finally to the all-out military operation that was put into action. In a sense, it was the failure of the United States to define and maintain clear-cut objectives in handling Panama that eventually forced the United States to use its military power to deal with the crisis. Ultimately, dissension and rivalries amongst the ranks of those given the power to create and enforce Panamanian policy, combined with Noriega’s hubris and unwillingness to work with the American government, led to the violent crisis resolution of 1989.

From Roosevelt To Reagan

The United States’ interest in Panama dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when then-President Teddy Roosevelt sent U.S. troops to the country to rid it of colonialism and form an independent nation-state. Roosevelt’s good will, of course, had ulterior motives: the creation of the Panama Canal greatly increased the productivity and efficiency of the American shipping industry. However, Panama itself struggled to achieve economic stability and a full and free democracy. Ruthless dictators such as Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega hijacked the presidential system of Panama, using their power to control the country from behind the curtains. In general, however, the Panamanian people seemed unwilling to fight back against what would be considered unfair practices by the government. The 1984 elections were one particularly vivid example.

Noriega’s hand-picked candidate Nicolas Barletta won by a slight margin; it was suspected, and later revealed, that the election had been rigged. Despite this miscarriage of justice, Washington turned a blind eye to Noriega’s action. Their reason was very clear: as a paid informant of the CIA, Noriega provided valuable intelligence to the contras in Nicaragua fighting the Sandinistas in power.1 This willful ignorance by the United States possibly distorted Noriega’s own view of the U.S. as permissive and corrupt, unwilling to act against groups or individuals who also assisted them.

Signs Of Trouble

In June of 1987, accusations were made against Noriega by his former second-in-command Roberto Herrera. This led to demonstrations against Noriega and the PDF – demonstrations which were swiftly and brutally put down by the leader. Noriega also gathered his supporters to protest at the United States embassy in Panama City, which led to $106,000 worth of damage being done to the compound. In response, the United States halted over $40 million in foreign aid packages to the country. Additionally, on June 24, 1987, the U.S. Senate passed a non-binding resolution, asking for Noriega to step down as leader of the PDF or face the threat of losing valuable foreign aid.

Although Noriega had intimated in July he would be willing to step aside, no explicit guidelines were given and the United States was worried about the stability of the nation and the Canal, which was to be handed over to Panamanian administrators in 1989. Noriega had cut off communications with U.S. Ambassador Arthur Davis and Elliott Abrams, the Secretary of State’s Director of Latin American Policy. Both men were anti-Noriega, and frequently reported back to Washington with calls for military action.2 The Reagan administration was reluctant, however, to endanger the lives of the 50,000 Americans living in Panama. Thus, in December of 1987, the decision was made to send Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, to meet with Noriega and “talk tough” with him about his resignation.

At the same time, arrangements were being made through Jose Blandon, the Panamian consul general in New York, and Daniel J. Murphy, a retired admiral and former Bush staffer. Both plans put forth the same goals – a free media, democratic elections, and the removal of Noriega from power – but Murphy’s plan set the removal date as May 1989, a full year after Blandon’s. Although Murphy had no official affiliation with the American government, Noriega took his negotiations as being approved by the White House. He was particularly encouraged by Armitage’s visit – the two traded war stories over scotch.3 However, the cozy relationship between the two governments was abruptly ramrodded by a new creation: the war on drugs.

The War On Drugs

Drug dealers are terrorists, killing kids and cops, and they should be treated as such. I won’t bargain with drug dealers either, whether they’re on U.S. or foreign soil.

George Bush, May 4, 19884

On February 4, 1988, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami issued a full load of indictments against Noriega, for money laundering, drug trafficking, bribery, and racketeering. The revelation of Noriega’s illicit activities was particularly embarrassing to the Reagan administration, and to Vice President and presidential hopeful George Bush. Bush had come out early in his campaign to state he was going to be tough on drugs. Noriega’s involvement in drug trade looked bad for the government that had turned a blind eye to his activities otherwise.

The indictments also created a miniature crisis in Panama, when Noriega refused to surrender to the American authorities. Panamanian President Eric del Valle removed Noriega from power on February 25, but Noriega responded by placing del Valle under home arrest (he later escaped to the U.S.) and putting a proxy ruler in command. The Reagan White House quickly denounced the takeover, recognized del Valle as the acting leader of Panama, and froze all Panamanian government assets in the United States. They removed Panama’s “favored nation” trade status and ceased Canal payments to the country. A large bank run ensued, and the Panamanian economy was left in shambles.

The three major goals of the economic sanctions were to erode Noriega’s popularity among the people, to gain leverage in negotiations with Noriega, and to stop Noriega’s ability to pay and maintain the significant armed forces he ruled over.5 This final tactic was complemented by several covert attempts by the administration to rouse up Noriega’s subordinates in the PDF to lead a coup against him. On March 16, Panamanian Chief of Police Leonidas Macias organized a coup against Noriega, but it was easily defeated.

"All The Hard Options"

Although military action was still an unwanted means to an end, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater’s acknowledgment that “all the hard options” were being reviewed showed that Reagan and his staff were growing impatient with Noriega.6 Elliott Abrams had suggested a limited force commando-styled raid to capture Noriega and extradite him. The Pentagon and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff William Crowe expressed concerns about American hostages, and the international legalities of such a maneuver. Abrams showed particular distaste for Crowe’s reticence towards military action; Crowe returned the dislike in kind, calling Abrams’s proposals “naïve” and “reckless.”7 At the same time, Congress also seemed to oppose military action in Panama. These conflicting ideologies in all probability compounded Noriega’s confidence that military action would not be taken, and that he would be free to run Panama as he saw fit.

Despite Southern Commander Fred Woerner’s objections, the Reagan Administration sent 1,300 more troops to the area, as a symbolic display of force.8 The administration continued to try to make a deal with Noriega, giving him until May 25 to retire and allow free elections to take place. In exchange, the White House would drop the indictments against Noriega. This announcement created a furor among the American public, the press, and Congress – and Vice President Bush. Bush, who was running his Presidential campaign with a new tactic, The War On Drugs, did not want to appear soft on criminal drug traffickers before November.9

Despite all of the objectors, the deal was approved. Noriega, however, was slow to accept, and on the day the deal expired, Secretary of State George Schultz pulled the offer from the table. The diplomatic and economic alternatives were proving to be rather ineffective bait for enticing Noriega to resign. Thus, in July of 1988, plans were drawn up to proceed with covert operations within Panama to overthrow Noriega from within. These plans, too, were unable to draw out any major anti-Noriega personnel from within the PDF. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Noriega would respond to nothing less than military force: with George Bush’s victory in the 1988 Presidential elections, Noriega could expect more tacit support for just such force in Washington, D.C.

A Plan For Removal

Bush had already come out and implicitly expressed his approval of removing Noriega by force, if necessary. He reiterated his statement on December 24, declaring "…Noriega must go."10 The new Bush Cabinet agreed that first, an attempt to run Noriega out peacefully should be undertaken. In May of 1989, Panama held a new election for the role of President. Bush and his staff approved Panama 4, a covert operation to provide millions of dollars to Noriega’s opposition to print material and generate communicative support to rid Panama of Noriega. However, the money was mismanaged – some of it was even used to import drugs into the United States – and the operation was a total failure. The President also sent several organizations to Panama to ensure the elections would be run fairly. One such organization was headed by former President Jimmy Carter. Despite these interventions, Noriega’s candidate won by a 2-to-1 margin. Cries of electoral fraud and intimidation came quickly, with Carter claiming Noriega had "robb[ed] the people of Panama of their legitimate rights."11

In a huffy response, Noriega nullified the elections. This in turn led to mass protests, which were violently put down by Noriega’s “Dignity Battalions.” These outburts of violence were captured on television and broadcast across the whole world. At a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing on itself and America was becoming the largest superpower in the world, it was very disconcerting to see such lawlessness and violence in a country protected by the States. Bush’s tough rhetoric was being viewed as hollow promises. In response, Bush gave a speech on May 11, stating a seven point policy designed explicitly to remove Noriega. The seven points were:

  • supporting the Organization of American States’ attempts to resolve the crisis;
  • recalling Ambassador Davis from Panama;
  • relocating U.S. government employees and their families to secure areas;
  • encouraging American businessmen in Panama to send their dependents back to the U.S.;
  • continuing economic sanctions;
  • affirming U.S. obligations and enforcing U.S. rights under the Panama Canal Treaties;
  • and sending 2000 soldiers to augment military forces already stationed in Panama.

In the speech, Bush explicitly asked members of the PDF to lead an uprising against Noriega. The removal of civilian forces, the addition of armed forces, and the general diplomatic fallback of the plan raised the obvious questions: would U.S. forces provide direct support via firepower and manpower to a coup by the Panamanians? Despite the quick reaction of the administration to the election fiasco, the process of moving soldiers to Panama was significantly hampered on direction by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. Chief of Staff William Crowe warned Cheney that moving the troops in too quickly might endanger the American lives in Panama.

The October Coup

In early October, the United States Southern Commander Maxwell Thurman learned of a coup being led by Moises Giroldi. With permission from the White House, SOUTHCOM provided logistical support in setting up a roadblock to keep out Noriega loyalists from the PDF headquarters. Immediately, there were conflicting objectives within the White House. Thurman had only taken over the job from Fred Woerner the day before due to his willingness to use force in Panama. The following day, Crowe was out as Chief of Staff, replaced by NSC advisor Colin Powell. Thurman was particularly suspicious of Giroldi, a Noriega loyalist, and the lack of details coming out of Panama regarding the coup. He passed these concerns on to Powell, who called the coup “half-baked.” Powell also felt that providing force in Panama would force a change in American objectives from merely capturing Noriega to overthrowing the entire PDF regime. On October 3, Giroldi led the coup, and the rebels intended to turn over Noriega to SOUTHCOM, despite Giroldi’s timid objections. However, before they could act, Noriega called in a special unit, who simply flew over the American roadblock and snuffed out the coup.

In Congress, Bush was mocked as a “wimp”; Jesse Helms, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the White House administration “a bunch of Keystone Kops.”12 Despite the Bush White House’s denial that they knew in advance about the coup, it was obvious they had not provided the proper support to guarantee its success. “The bottom line was that Reagan and Bush administration rhetoric about getting rid of Noriega had not been matched by planning for concrete action."13 The President’s office later issued a statement saying it thought Giroldi was no better than Noriega, which many Americans viewed as hypocrisy. Why would the President encourage a PDF coup and then not support one that arose? The United States and the Bush White House were going to have to toughen up in their dealings with Noriega, who was quickly making international headlines as a drug dealer and a despot, who was flaunting his power in the face of American force.

The War Room

Two events happened in mid-December that created the need for imminent action in Panama and led to the military intervention of the U.S. On December 15, 1989, General Noriega was declared "Maximum Leader for National Liberation" by the Panamanian Assembly, which meant that he was now not just the de facto ruler of the country, but the official one as well. Later that same day, Noriega and his government passed a resolution that declared Panama to be in a "state of war" with the United States. Although it seems that Noriega was using the declaration to antagonize the Americans, he did not actually want to go to war with them; he had made similar "antagonistic announcements" against the U.S. since the sanctions were imposed against him. 14

The second event happened the next day at a PDF roadblock near Noriega's Commandacia. A Navy lieutenant and his wife were stopped at the roadblock and were waiting for their identifications to be checked when another car, holding four off-duty officers - "unarmed and in civilian clothes" - was also stopped.15 The report given by the soldiers was that when they were stopped, the PDF soldiers had aimed loaded, unlocked weapons at them and attempted to pull them from the car. The driver of the car attempted to speed away and one of the officers was fatally wounded. The Navy lieutenant and his wife watched the whole episode, and the lieutenant was beaten, kicked, and threatened with his life while his wife was threatened sexually and forced to stand with her arms over her head until she passed out.

Powell and Thurman discussed possible retaliatory actions to these events during a phone conversation on December 17, 1989. Thurman outlined the three possible options that he saw and his feelings towards each. The first option was to nothing militarily, "just protest." Thurman dismissed that option to Powell, stating that doing so would only "elevate Noriega’s stature in the minds of his major thugs that are aiding and abetting him."16 The second option was to execute some small portions of Operation Blue Spoon (the current military planning for an invasion of Panama) against the PDF and try to snatch Noriega. To do a snatch job, the U.S. military would need to know where Noriega was at all times, and he was cagey enough to elude U.S. Intelligence about 20 percent of the time. The third option, which Thurman recommended, was the execution of Operation Blue Spoon. The military had rehearsed the operation, and was as ready as it would ever be.

Powell agreed, and went to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's office where the two discussed the same topic, with Powell concluding that he believed that Operation Blue Spoon was the way to go. Cheney listened to Powell's analysis, consulted with a few assistants, and then agreed with Powell's recommendation. Before going meet with the President, Powell consulted the Joint Chiefs and convinced all of them that Operation Blue Spoon was the best alternative on the table. Powell then met with the President later that day.

Present at the meeting were Cheney, Secretary of State James Baker, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, CIA Director Robert Gates, and press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. Powell outlined only one option after debriefing the President on the facts they had gathered about the incidents at the roadblock, and that option was Operation Blue Spoon. For almost two hours the men at the meeting answered The President's questions, along with questions from each other. The President asked why it would not be better to go in with a small force. Scowcroft asked about casualty levels. Backlash from other nations was to be expected. They also discussed the aftermath of a possible military intervention, including the public and press reaction. At the end of the meeting, Bush said, "This guy (Noriega) is not going to lay off… Okay, let's go. We're going to go."17

Operation Just Cause

Operation Blue Spoon (officially changed to Operation Just Cause on December 17th) began at 1 a.m., December 20th. U.S. forces took control of their targets quickly and easily, and the operation was an overwhelming success, accomplishing two of its three stated goals within two days. The conflict resulted in 23 U.S. casualties and 2,000 Panamanian casualties, both military and civilian. Noriega eluded U.S. forces until he showed up four days later at the residence of the Vatican's representative in Panama, the Papal Nuncio, where he requested and received political asylum. Beginning on December 27, 1989, the troops surrounding the residence set up loud speakers and began blasting "ear-splitting" heavy metal songs day and night. Finally, on January 3, 1990, Noriega surrendered, left the residence, and was immediately extradited to Miami where he was put on trial for the drug charges. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison, and was first eligible for parole in 2002.


Looking back on the crisis in Panama it seems that there was little positive ground gained through non-military alternatives. Because of the Reagan administration’s acquiescence to Noriega’s illegal actions, Noriega proved to be unable to deal seriously with the tough diplomatic policies of the Bush administration. At the same time, neither administration seemed willing to use direct military force to achieve its ends. Covert operations and economic sanctions simply did not have more than a marginal effect on Noriega’s ability to run the country and prosper for himself. Noriega’s ruthless treatment of dissenters within the PDF as well as the lack of a clear opposition to Noriega within Panama contributed to failures by America to oust the dictator.

For an entire year the Reagan administration relied heavily on casual diplomatic measures to convince Noriega to retire, paving the way for democracy. Upon the indictment of Noriega on drug charges, the administration had to quickly backpedal and use even tougher language to negotiate with Noriega. When President Bush came into the office, a sharp change in the objectives occurred. No longer was America coddling Noriega – he was a menace and must be removed to help the President’s stance on drugs. After the failure to guarantee a fair election in May of 1989, the Bush administration was left with little alternative but to use military force. Unfortunately, hesitancy and confusion as to the scope of intervention led to a major logistical failure during the October 1989 coup by Moises Giroldi. With this final failure, and all other alternatives having been exhausted (and Bush’s political ratings dipping into the mid-40s), military action became the last resort used to take down Noriega.

In general, it appears that while other alternatives were conceived and implemented, they did not properly affect the right people – those beneath Noriega who were tired of his iron-fisted and narcissistic rule. Noriega appears to have been one of the many despots of the 20th century who only seemed to respond to force and little else. Without a consistent objective in dealing with the PDF, the American government failed to deal with Noriega in a timely way; their consensus to use direct military force proved successful in dealing with Noriega in a finalizing way.


1. Kempe, Frederick. Divorcing the Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega. Putnam: New York. 1990. pp 83.

2. Buckley, Kevin. Panama: The Whole Story. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1991. pp. 14.

3. Gilboa, Eytan. "The Panama Invasion Revisited: Lessons for the Use of Force in the Post Cold War Era," Political Science Quarterly. Vol. 110, n. 4. pp. 539.

4. Harris, Godfrey and Guillermo de St. Malo Arias. The Panamanian Problem: How The Reagan And Bush Administrations Dealt With The Noriega Regime. 1993. The Americas Group: Los Angeles. pp. 237.

5. Gilboa.

6. McAllister, Bill. "US Patience Not Unlimited Noriega Warned." Washington Post. March 30, 1988.

7. Crowe Jr., William J. "Elliott Abrams Remains Reckless on Panama." New York Times. October 16, 1989.

8. Woodward, Bob. The Commanders. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1991. pp. 84-86.

9. Harris. pp. 238.

10. Gilboa.

11. Gruson, Lindsey. "Noriega Stealing Election." New York Times. May 9, 1989.

12. Dowd, Maureen. “Bush Under Fire, Defends Role In Panama Crisis.” New York Times. October 7, 1989; Hoffman, David and Ann Devroy. "U.S. Was Caught off Guard by Coup Attempt." Washington Post. October 6, 1989; Pichirallo, Joe and Molly Moore. "Cheney." Washington Post. October 6, 1989.

13. Grant, Rebecca L. Operation Just Cause and the U.S. Policy Process. Rand Corporation: Santa Monica, CA. 1991. pp. 41.

14. Ibid., pp. 48.

15. Gilboa; Woodward, pp. 161-2.

16. Woodward, pp. 167.

17. Ibid., pp. 168-9.