Panama Coup Was No Bay of Pigs

COLUMNIST Philip Geyelin usefully reminds us that foreign policy isn't football. The Monday morning quarterbacks assessing President Bush's performance in the Panama coup attempt did not have the benefit of instant replay. Initial reviews were based on second-hand sources. Looking back with a fuller picture now, was the coup attempt indeed a lost opportunity for the president?

The foreign-policy hawks say that Mr. Bush could easily have sent troops in to receive Noriega from the rebels. And the doves, who usually raise a big ruckus at US military involvement in Latin America, are gleefully charging Bush with being remiss. ``Where was George?'' they ask.

A recent Washington Post editorial raises just the right questions:

``Did the US government policy position that General Noriega should be toppled automatically not only justify but actually demand that we participate militarily in his overthrow? And, if the answer is yes, what are the implications for US policy obligations elsewhere in the world?

``Pol Pot is in the wings. Or is he too far away? Other Latin dictators flourish in our neighborhood; do we have a stronger case to act against them? Or does it all come down to the familiar question of whose thug is being gored - the left-wing or right-wing thug? Or, finally, is there maybe just some reflexive administration-bashing going on here, a quickly seized opportunity to make a monkey of a president who talked one way and, in the event, acted another?''

Certainly, Panama was no Bay of Pigs - a comparison that some of the president's critics have made. Bush's response is just the opposite of President Kennedy's in the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba.

Robert Kennedy discussed President Kennedy's reaction to the trying moments of the Bay of Pigs in a 1964 interview with John Bartlow Martin: ``The one thing that really struck us both was the failure of communications. It was so difficult to find out exactly what was going on. The lack of communications, the lack of intelligence information, was what was particularly disturbing.''

That sounds faintly like what Bush faced in Panama. The president was not sure whether the rebels would turn Noriega over to him. Further, he didn't know what kind of government the rebels would establish.

But there was a clear distinction between the Panama and Cuban situations: Bush apparently believed he was receiving what he needed to know as events developed.

Further, the president insists the agency did all it could do within the congressional restrictions. Now, Bush is asking Congress to give the CIA greater freedom to deal with coup planners like those in Panama, while preserving the prohibition on assassinations.

Remember, too, the deep human tragedy of the Bay of Pigs, where the invaders were repelled on the beach by the Castro forces.

``The President was strongly in favor of helping in some way,'' Kennedy told Mr. Martin in that interview of '64. ``But nobody could think of any way that we could help. So we went through meeting after meeting, receiving the bad news: First this part was wiped out; then the second part was wiped out. The other great problem, of course, was they were running out of ammunition. We kept getting these reports, as they were running out of ammunition, that they couldn't fight.''

President Kennedy almost met his political Waterloo in Cuba. Public displeasure nearly sank him. But he shouldered the full responsibility for the decision and weathered the storm.

The worst outcome of the Panama incident would have been a failed US military intrusion resulting in lost human lives. But the president avoided a Bay of Pigs incident - avoiding casualties both in the fields and in the polls.

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