YEARNING to see Panama rid of its corrupt dictator, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, one could feel disappointed at the failure of Tuesday's coup attempt. Some critics have condemned the Bush administration for keeping aloof from the attempted overthrow. Yet it's far from clear that a successful takeover by young military officers would have done much to help Panama. It's even less clear that American involvement in such a coup would work to the long-term benefit of the US. The abortive rebellion was strictly a matter of military politics. The leaders - majors and captains - are rankled that their avenues of advancement are blocked by entrenched senior officers loyal to General Noriega. They may also be offended by graft and drug trafficking among Noriega's cronies. The insurrectionists did not purport to be motivated by democratic scruple, however, and they didn't call on the political opposition to assist them. This was not an outpouring of people power such as that which toppled Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Perhaps the coup leaders, once in power, would have orchestrated a return to democratic, civilian government in Panama, but that's uncertain. It should be remembered that the Panamanian Defense Forces are not, in some respects, a politically disinterested army in the American or European sense. Like many armies in the developing world, the Defense Forces are partly a private militia, whose mission is not just to defend the country against outside aggressors, but, equally important, to protect the rulers from internal dissent.
As part of the police in a police state, the Defense Forces are hardly an incubator of democratic values. One of the coup leaders played a central role in quelling another such attempt last year.
For the US to have been an accomplice would have been dubious for a number of reasons:
America would have been implicated in an internal military matter that lacked wide popular participation.
However much Noriega is despised in Latin America, distrust of the Yanqui big stick is even stronger. The sight of American troops unslinging their arms in a tiny country might have undone the good will Washington has started to build up in the region through its recent emphasis on patient, peaceful, multilateral efforts to foster democracy.
Without major US involvement, the coup attempt probably would have failed anyway; military half-measures would have just left the US looking inept.
For US troops stationed in Panama suddenly to have joined an insurrection, however good the cause, could have impaired US efforts to establish or preserve military-stationing arrangements in other third-world countries.
Yes, Noreiga must go. But US thrusts against him must be consistent with other national interests and the cause of Latin-American democracy. Succumbing to opportunism isn't how a great power should do business.