Bush's `inaction' on Panama was well advised

Politics and Risks of US Intervention

IN foreign policy, an administration is often damned if it doesn't and damned if it does. For the past two weeks the Bush administration has been the target of extensive criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for not aiding Panamanian nationals in their attempt to oust Panama's strongman, General Manuel Noriega. This is not the first time George Bush and his advisors have been admonished for not intervening in the domestic affairs of troubled states. In June of this year, the administration was castigated for not using the power of the United States to pressure the Beijing regime to acquiesce to the demands of Chinese dissidents for greater political democratization. Later in the summer, George Bush was accused of missing a golden opportunity when he refused to provide more economic assistance to Poland. In all three instances, critics have maintained that greater US involvement would have resulted in changes that would benefit US interests.

Monday quarterbacking is one of Washington's favorite pastimes and, in most cases, not terribly important. But when it comes to foreign policy related to US involvement in the domestic affairs of other states, the game can be costly. Those who have accused the Bush administration of not acting more decisively against the Beijing and the Noriega regimes, and for not being more supportive of Poland's new non-communist government, have short memories and very little understanding of the dangers involved whenever the US becomes entangled in other countries' domestic affairs.

These critics have forgotten that one of the main reasons the US has such a terrible reputation in many parts of the world is because of its past tendency not to respect the sovereign rights of states.

US intervention in Guatemala in 1954, in Cuba in 1961, in the Dominican Republic in 1965, in Chile between 1970 and 1973, and in the Caribbean Basin during the first eight years of the 1980s, have convinced Latin Americans that, although the Soviet Union and the US have very different political structures, their international behavior is driven by the same desire: domination.

This perception of the US is not unique to Latin Americans. Memories of US involvement in Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines still linger in the minds of many southeast Asians. A similar argument, although in a more limited context, can be made about the attitude among many Africans.

The observations will seem pointless to those who take the view that the principal duty of any administration is to protect and promote US interests - not its image as a lovable power. This view, however, is shortsighted - it fails to realize that even a bully needs to have friends. But there is a second reason why intervention is not always the most effective policy.

Intervention rarely takes place under conditions of certainty; and whenever uncertainty is present, so are risks. To argue that the Bush administration should not have stood on the sidelines as the Chinese demonstrators demanded political reform, or when the present Polish government requested more economic aid, or while the Panamanian rebels were trying to oust Noriega, is to forget that each case was beset with high risks. Greater pressure on the Chinese government could have resulted in the further deterioration of US-Chinese relations.

It is important to keep in mind that China has never been tolerant of external involvement in its internal affairs.

In turn, giving economic assistance to a beleaguered Warsaw member might have resulted not only in the waste of valuable assets (Poland's poor track record in managing its economy is unlikely to change overnight), but also in greater tension between the US and the USSR.

One should not assume that because Mikhail Gorbachev is introducing major changes in the Soviet Union, he is also ready to sacrifice the integrity of the Warsaw Pact. Just as closer economic relations between Cuba and the USSR in 1960 were perceived by Washington as a major threat to the US, a Poland economically dependent on the US would be interpreted in Moscow as a threat to Soviet interests.

And finally, regarding Panama, one cannot dismiss the strong possibility that if the Bush administration had involved the US militarily, a bloody battle might have led to extensive domestic and international denunciation. The coup was not led by military leaders wanting to introduce political reforms, but by officers who wanted to augment their own power. Moreover, for a coup to succeed it must be organized properly. As we have learned, Noriega's Panamanian military enemies had not developed a decent plan.

With this in mind, one ought to be grateful that President Bush chose the path of inaction. Had he not, today we might find ourselves castigating him and his advisers for not being more risk-conscious. Risk aversion is not always possible, or the best strategy. But before plunging into the sea of uncertainty, not only should potential gains be identified, but they should be balanced against potential costs. Failure to analyze carefully the balance sheet of a foreign policy before it is implemented can lead to regrettable results.

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