THE worst effect of the failed coup against Panama's Noriega is that it has bolstered those forces inside the United States which want to restore the CIA's authority to overthrow other governments. No sooner had cries gone up in Congress criticizing President Bush for not having given sufficient support to the insurgents than the drum beat began for unleashing the CIA. It was only a matter of hours before Congress was withdrawing shackles previously placed on the CIA, including the requirement that a congressional committee be fully informed in advance about CIA plans to subvert foreign governments.
According to news reports, the only continuing restraint now on the CIA concerns assassination of foreign heads of state.
It is a tragic commentary on the public morality that no indignation exploded over the notion that the US - or any nation - is justified in engaging in the overthrow of other governments, however despicable the leaders of those governments might be. Once we arrogate to ourselves the right to impose our will on other peoples, we repudiate a principle that was held to be inviolate by the men who founded this nation. This principle admits no exceptions.
That Noriega is a tyrant and an evil force doesn't invalidate the principle. If we appoint ourselves as the ultimate arbiter over a dictatorial government, it will be no time before we impose our will on democratic governments we happen not to like or that refuse to yield to our demands - as, for example, accepting an American military base on their territory.
The US was correct in denouncing the Soviet Union for its incursions into Afghanistan. We rejected as absurd and even outrageous the notion that the Soviet Union was justified in equipping insurgent forces and sending troops of its own into Afghanistan for reasons of its own supposed security.
It is ironic that the current Soviet government should be openly renouncing its decision to intervene in Afghanistan at the same time that the US should be openly proclaiming its right to overthrow the Panamanian government. Certainly we have sufficient power to force a change in Panama. But such power constitutes even more of a threat to American institutions than to Noriega. One of the symptoms of absolute power is that it not only corrupts absolutely but that it drives integrity underground and sets the stage for deceit.
The tragedy of American intervention in Vietnam was that it led to gross lying by the American government to its own people. At precisely the time that secret plans were being completed to send large numbers of US troops to Vietnam, the American people were assured that our military involvement in Vietnam would be limited to US military advisers.
We were told that Vietnam had to be saved from Chinese influence, ignoring Chinese-Vietnamese tensions and hostilities. The American people were also told that only our intervention could avert a communist domino effect in Southeast Asia, with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Burma toppling one by one in rapid succession, giving way to a unified and monolithic communist force.
Events were to prove that the communist nations of Southeast Asia, far from being a cohesive political entity, would war among themselves for the same nationalist reasons that had produced war in the past. We became involved in a major war in Vietnam through a series of bravado miscalculations, all of which were connected to the original arrogance that led us to regard Indochina as a suitable zone for demonstrating our primacy in a world balance of power struggle with the Soviet Union.
The big need of the US today is to update its foreign policy by recognizing that the era of domination and sheer force has ended. A world that has become a single geographic unit is now groping its way, however slowly, toward global institutions as the only way of achieving common safety and common progress.
If President George Bush wants to make his mark on history, he will invoke the concept of world law as the unifying principle of American foreign policy. He will renounce cops-and-robbers games and seek to create a world security system based on enforceable law. In pre-Gorbachev days, such an approach would probably not have produced a reasonable response from the Soviet Union; but Gorbachev's speech before the United Nations provides a historic opening that we cannot afford to ignore.
A new world is waiting to be born. This is where our emphasis in foreign policy should be, and not on ways of bypassing principles of national integrity that gave character and energy to our early history.