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Sunday, January 7, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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William Pfaff

Let's Examine This `Great Success'

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

PARIS - Gen. Manuel Noriega now is securely in a Miami jail, and President Bush thinks ``Operation Just Cause'' a great success. So does the vast majority of the U.S. public and press. Why it has been a success is not clear to me, but mine would seem a reactionary view, by current U.S. standards, and certainly not a popular one.

I don't see that devastating a small country's economy, then mounting a 25,000-man invasion, which kills over 300 people and wounds hundreds more, to seize a disreputable but unimportant military adventurer over whom U.S. courts have disputed jurisdiction, should be considered a success.

It is not a notable success that the proportion of Panamanian fatalities (at least 290) to population (2.3 million), during less than a week's fighting in December, is nearly half the proportion of U.S. fatal casualties (more than 58,000) to U.S. population (205 million in 1970) in the nine-year Vietnam War.

The new government of Guillermo Endara exists by U.S. favor. Panama is once again a U.S. dependency, functioning under the authority and sanction of U.S. military power. It will remain so for the foreseeable future. This also does not seem to me a success, either for Panama or for the United States.

What has happened is part of a pattern of recent U.S. conduct that is of considerable novelty and significance. This has not been just one more U.S. military intervention in the Americas.

Past interventions were usually commercial, protecting U.S. investments or ``restoring order.'' The invasion of Cuba in 1898, and of what now is Panama, and then was Colombia, in 1903, grew out of imperialist assumptions characteristic of the period.

Post-1945 U.S. interventions - Guatemala in 1954, the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983, the contras in Nicaragua in the Reagan years - were given ideological justification. They defended Texas and New Mexico against communism. (A few years earlier, when Democrats governed the country, Vietnam was held to be the first line of defense for Hawaii).

But with Panama we have a new and radical argument. The United States invaded Panama in order to seize a chief of state held to be a fugitive from U.S. justice.

The invasion followed findings by administration lawyers that U.S. law-enforcement agents and soldiers have the authority to seize fugitives abroad, in disregard of the sovereignty of other governments.

The United States has seized at least one other Panamanian, a supposed accomplice of Noriega, removing him by unilateral action to the United States because, a U.S. official explained, ``the Panamanian Constitution does not permit the extradition of Panamanian citizens to the United States.''

After the failed Oct. 3 coup in Panama, the White House made it known that it was re-examining rules concerning the assassination of foreign chiefs of state and other persons - posing the question, according to a Bush-administration spokesman, as to whether ``a less restrictive reading'' of the Ford administration's executive order banning involvement in assassinations ``would be in the national interest.''

Other states may commit assassinations, but only the United States proposes it as national policy.

Earlier, in 1988, the United States kidnapped a drug dealer in Honduras, again because of an indictment in the United States, thereby provoking an angry Honduran reaction.

Before that, the Justice Department revealed that it contemplated legal action in U.S. courts against the prime minister of the Bahamas, Ferdinand Marcos (when he was president of the Philippines), and Egypt's defense minister (for an alleged intelligence operation targeting U.S. high technology).

These matters of criminal justice have been accompanied by U.S. government efforts to extend the reach of U.S. company and banking law, and securities-trading restrictions, to countries abroad. A Justice Department official said in 1988: ``We have to prove to the world that our legal system is one that stands for the proposition that crime will not be condoned, whatever the offender's state or status.''

This translates to mean that the United States will, to the best of its ability, unilaterally impose its conceptions of law, justice, and national interest within other countries, in disregard of their sovereignty. It surely amounts to a proposition that the United States considers itself beyond the constraints of international law and convention.

In a brilliant new book on the cultural implications of the First World War, ``Rites of Spring,'' Modris Eksteins of the University of Toronto writes that Germany in August 1914 ``had no concrete war aims, only a strategy and a vision, that of German expansion in an existential rather than a physical sense.''

Germans acted from convictions of ``moral superiority,'' ``moral strength,'' and ``moral right.'' People believed that Germany's great accomplishments provoked only envy and hostility abroad.

Because of this sense of moral superiority and moral isolation, ``the Germans had been, even before the war, the most readily inclined of the leading nations to question the norms and values of 19th-century liberal bourgeois society, to elevate the moment beyond the grasp of the law . . . ''

From this followed Germany's wartime lack of scruple about violating Belgium's neutrality, attacking civilian targets, introducing unrestricted submarine warfare, and gas and flame weapons, thus overturning what previously had been the accepted morality of warfare among civilized nations.

All this ended very badly for Germans, and for nearly everyone else. Since 1914 we have failed to recover that lost morality.

The parallel between the United States' present challenge to international convention and law, and that of Germany in 1914, obviously is relative, and takes place in very different international circumstances. Yet a parallel is there, and it is essential that attention be drawn to it.

(Copyright, 1990, Los Angeles Times Syndicate)

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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