Thursday, August 21, 2008

Invasions compared: Panama 1989 Vs Georgia 2008

"The goals of the United States have been to safeguard the lives of Americans"
- George H.W. Bush, 1989

"My duty as President right from the outset was to protect our fellow citizens."
- Dmitry Medvedev, 2008
US Presidential candidate John McCain has been among the most outspoken in voicing criticism of the Russian invasion of Georgia. Yet, of all US leaders, John McCain should know that there is nothing unusual about a superpower invading a satellite state and then claiming it had done so "in order to protect its own citizens" -- Russia's justification for the invasion of Georgia. After all, John McCain was born in Panama. And it probably would never have occurred to McCain to oppose the 1989 US invasion of his birthplace.

In fact, the United States used a similar line of reasoning to Russia's when it invaded Panama in December 1989. Washington unabashedly called the war "Operation Just Cause." Although American interests in Panama are not nearly as longstanding as Russia's presence in Georgia, the United States has had close ties to Panama since construction of the canal began in 1904. John McCain is a product of that close relationship. In an important respect, the ties of the United States to Panama mirror those of Russia to Georgia. The common denominator? Both Panama and Georgia are valued as strategic global transportation links.

In 1989 the father of the current US president, H.W. Bush sounded like President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia would, nineteen years later. Let's remind ourselves of what each man said in attempt to justify the invasion of a small neighbor.

The justification for US invasion of Panama:

In his 20 December 1989 statement to the American people, US President H.W. Bush claimed that Panamanian President Manuel Noriega had threatened the lives of the approximately 35,000 US citizens living there. Following are the words with which H.W. Bush justified the invasion of Panama(transcript):

My fellow citizens, last night I ordered U.S. military forces to Panama. No President takes such action lightly. This morning I want to tell you what I did and why I did it.

For nearly two years, the United States, nations of Latin America and the Caribbean have worked together to resolve the crisis in Panama. The goals of the United States have been to safeguard the lives of Americans, to defend democracy in Panama, to combat drug trafficking, and to protect the integrity of the Panama Canal treaty. Many attempts have been made to resolve this crisis through diplomacy and negotiations. All were rejected by the dictator of Panama, General Manuel Noriega, an indicted drug trafficker.

Last Friday, Noriega declared his military dictatorship to be in a state of war with the United States and publicly threatened the lives of Americans in Panama. The very next day, forces under his command shot and killed an unarmed American serviceman; wounded another; arrested and brutally beat a third American serviceman; and then brutally interrogated his wife, threatening her with sexual abuse. That was enough.

General Noriega's reckless threats and attacks upon Americans in Panama created an imminent danger to the 35,000 American citizens in Panama. As President, I have no higher obligation than to safeguard the lives of American citizens. And that is why I directed our Armed Forces to protect the lives of American citizens in Panama and to bring General Noriega to justice in the United States. [ . . .]

I am committed to strengthening our relationship with the democratic nations in this hemisphere. I will continue to seek solutions to the problems of this region through dialog and multilateral diplomacy. I took this action only after reaching the conclusion that every other avenue was closed and the lives of American citizens were in grave danger. [ . . .]

The justification for the Russian invasion of Georgia:

President Dmitry Medvedev explained that a top Russian justification for invading Georgia was protecting lives of Russian citizens. Here is a translation of Russian Federation President Medvedev words to Russian party leaders, delivered on August 11, 2008 (ISN):

Today’s meeting with the leaders of the parliamentary factions is taking place in extraordinary circumstances and is extremely important for us all. On the night of August 7-8, Georgia committed an act of military aggression directed primarily against the people of South Ossetia and the Russian peacekeeping brigade deployed in this region. They used heavy artillery, tanks, aviation and the regular army to literally wipe Tskhinvali, its homes, hospitals and schools, from the face of the Earth. Several thousand people have become victims of the ensuing humanitarian disaster, and a large number of them are our fellow citizens.

In just a few hours all of the agreements that existed at that point were made null and void, not to mention that all the basic principles of international law have been violated: the wounded have had no chance to get treatment and refugees have not had the possibility of evacuation. This is the tragic result of the unspeakable aggressive act that Georgia, the Georgian authorities, has committed...

. . .
As I have said, my duty as President right from the outset was to protect our fellow citizens and not let the crimes committed against civilians and peacekeepers go unpunished. Russia wants to end this barbarity against the Ossetian people and against our citizens as soon as possible.

I repeat now what I said several days ago, namely that Russia has historically always been the guarantor of the security of the peoples of the Caucasus. This is our mission and our duty. We have never been just passive observers in this region and never will be.

We are doing everything within our power. Russia will not leave its fellow citizens in misfortune and will strive to normalise the situation.
Both Panama and Georgia lie within the respective historical "spheres of influence" of the superpowers.

Georgia and Panama resemble one another in several ways.

Comparing two satellite states
Panama and Georgia are eerily similar in respect to land area, population, and economic strength.
  • land areas: 76,000 km² (Panama) Vs 70,000 km² (Georgia)
  • population: 2,500,000 (Panama, 1992) Vs 4,600,000 (Georgia, 2006)
  • per-capital income: $2,000 (Panama, 1992) $4,700 (Georgia, 2006)
Interestingly, a GDP of $2,000 in 1989 would be the equivalent to about $4,100 today. At the time of the respective conflicts, the economic status of Panamanians and Georgians were comparable.

The military conflicts
What similarities might be identified between the the US invasion of Panama in 1989 and the Russian-Georgian conflict 2008?

Although the number of the US invasion forces striking Panama --57,684 U.S. troops and over 300 aircraft --exceeded the acknowledged acknowledged size of Russia's Georgia invasion force -- 38,000 troops -- both superpowers suffered similar casualties.
  • Panama: Americans lost 24 killed, 325 wounded
  • Georgia: Russians lost 64 soldiers killed, 323 wounded
On the Panamanian side, between 100 and 1,000 Panama soldiers' lives were lost, and estimates for deaths of Panama civilians range as high as 2,000 to 5,000 due to the extensive use of heavy weapons by the United States in Panama City. In the Georgia conflict, the Georgians report 215 have been killed and 300 remain missing. The number of civilian deaths is in unknown, but could well number in the thousands.

The objectives
It is with regard to the objectives of the superpowers where one significant difference lies between the actions of the US almost twenty years ago in Panama and those of Russia in Georgia today. The US invasion of Panama overthrew the regime of Manuel Noriega. But Russia has not, at least as of this date, overthrown the government of Georgia, nor has it proclaimed any intention to do so.

It is no small irony that among the loudest voices opposing Russia's recent military actions in the Caucasus is John McCain, the Panamanian candidate.
Other sources: Wikipedia South Ossetia War, Wiki Georgia, Wiki Panama, Wiki US Invasion of Panama. Top photo shows McCain's father and grandfather at the US naval base in Panama.


  1. Thanks for your insights and observations. Clearly you have a more global view of this conflict than most places I have found, almost as though you "don't have a dog in this fight." I added a Bloglines subscription to your blog last week to keep up.

    I would, however, appreciate your take on a couple of contrary reactions I have found to the Russian incursion. The first is an indignant and passionate response from a Georgian (unsurprisingly) who took a lot of time and energy to put together extended comments in a comment thread at one of my posts that will be seen by very few people. (My blog is way low on regular readers; more a personal journal than anything.)

    The other is Michael Totten's brief report from Tbilisi which agrees with a growing number of anecdotes that Russian behavior in Georgia, even outside Osetia, is nowhere near the level of civility I think probably characterized US conduct in Panama twenty years ago.

    The struggle is, of course, a proxy fight between two much bigger forces, but that offers little consolation to the everyday people making up the stats, no matter how small they may be mathematically.

  2. Hey Hoots,

    In this video, survivors of the US invasion of Panama get interviewed in a refugee center. It strikes me as not so different from Michael Totten's reporting from Georgia.

    I think it's too difficult to conclude one invasion was worse than the other. For example, human rights groups, including the UN, estimated that 2,000-4,000 civilians died in the US invasion. An entire area of Panama City was flattened. From the documentary, it's clear to me that US news media coverage of the 1989 Panama invasion was about as "balanced" as its coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

  3. Hoots, also I wanted to say thank you for your kind words about Jotman on your blog!

  4. the main jotma's focus as I get it was - on McCain's talking on this matter. and another one - US in general.

    so, let me add to the difference between Panama and Georgia, McCain and Medvedev (nowadays) or Bush in '89.

    McCain obviously uses everything to his best advantage as a presidential candidate. Medvedev not. as I recall neither Bush that time.

    so, therefore whatever comes from McCain in the light of election campaign - is definitely conditioned ! what I mean is - he is very far from being objective, MUCH more far than Medvedev now or Bush then.

    therefore, I think there are much less reasons to take seriously whatever he has to say.

    although from other hand taking into consideration the whole bloody and dirty history of US interventions since '45, I can hardly name WHO from US can be taken seriously? Obama, who is increasingly recognized as a man of Defense committee? Hilary Clinton (out of race), wife of another ex-president who has contributed a lot to what US has become now?

    people like Kennan (jotman has article about his opinions on Nato expansion) I guess can be taken seriously - but he is dead, and even while he was still alive, not much listened to anyway by present US administrations.

    perhaps I would listen to and take seriously Ron Paul ! but somehow he is not much mentioned in cheerleaders' chorus of mainstream media. here is for example what I found just now:
    Ron Paul on US Imperialism in Georgia
    >>>One of Ron Paul's great gifts is his ability to make complicated issues understandable and indeed memorable to average people. For example, he notes that US meddling in the Caucasus is like the Russians arming and training the Mexican army to take back New Mexico.<<<

    on YouTube there is some more a bit old (although actually I am a bit surprised that he is not talking much about Georgian conflict):

    US Politician predicted Georgia Conflict Back in 2002

    there is reference to this article on website:

    Blowback from Bear Baiting

    >>>Americans have many fine qualities. A capacity to see ourselves as others see us is not high among them. <<<

    >>>Americans have many fine qualities. A capacity to see ourselves as others see us is not high among them. ...
    The chickens of democratic imperialism have now come home to roost -- in Tbilisi.

  5. Anonymous,

    You raise interesting questions.

    Regarding not taking "the candidate" McCain seriously, does that leave you relatively hopeful about the prospect of a McCain presidency?

    Regarding Obama: his instincts seem pretty good (i.e. his response to "evil" question which I blogged), though he bends to align himself with public opinion (perhaps the better term, given the state of the US media, is "corporate opinion") on Georgia or the war on terror to some extent.

    Ron Paul video, Buchanan article both interesting.

    Buchanan asks: "Is not Western hypocrisy astonishing?"


  6. honestly speaking - I do not give a sh1t about McCain, Obama or current president Bush.

    (although I've heard or read it somewhere even few months back that it is sort of already decided
    that he will win the elections.)

    and therefore, I do not even think about - will he become a president or not. why? because it is (presidential campaign) all just like one big show, called "democratic elections".

    come on please !

    I mean: they (whoever runs such shows) methodically tried to show how "democratic" US is:

    since Clinton's rule Secretary of State FIRST TIME EVER became woman (Albright), then African American (Powell - also first of Joint Chiefs of Staff), then Rice (who is both woman and African American).

    look at the faces (you can search Wiki for "Lists") of Presidents or VPs, Secretaries of

    State / Defense and you name it any other important position in US government !

    isn't it somewhat curious?
    like, Bangladesh or Pakistan ("3rd world countries") has had their PM as a woman. well,

    yeah, NZ comes to mind, then Merkel in Germany now. (forgive me for short memory - which

    other "1st world" countries had woman or non-white man as a head of state? or even in

    important position.)

    and yet, US till Clinton's term never had any !

    so, since Clinton somehow this thing apparently has started to be methodically corrected!

    and now in 2008 campaign we saw H. Clinton (woman) and Obama (non-white man) running as a

    candidates for Presidency. WOW! how wonderful, huh?

    however I would be VERY surprised to see Obama BEING ALLOWED to win the race! H. Clinton has

    already dropped out of it. I think people who believe that Obama may become a US president are either naive or ignorant, blindly and fanatically believing into divine "democratic" values of US political kitchen ! because it is more like who is ALLOWED to become a President ! although public is made to sacredly believe that he is "elected" ! HAHAHAHA !
    (see just a couple:
    there is even movie "Recount", wow!)

    so, I see this as a big farce and show-off: like "see! we have even black and woman running for presidency". (but UK for example didn't have even that much farce yet :) )

    so, speaking of hypocrisy. for me it is not amazing anymore !

    I am more concerned about what Pilger pointed out

    >>>The challenge for the rest of us is to lift this subjugated knowledge from out of the underground and take it to ordinary people. We need to make haste. Liberal Democracy is moving toward a form of corporate dictatorship. <<<
    ( )

    while public is brainwashed and kept in illusion that their votes matter ! LOL

    "Liberalism and TRUE Democracy are not the same. Liberalism began as a cult of the elite in the 19th century, and TRUE Democracy is NEVER handed down by elite - it is always fought for and struggled for."
    (from : )

    other interesting references:

    Obama, the prince of bait-and-switch

    The danse macabre of US-style democracy

    >>>"There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and Republicans,"<<<

  7. Jotman!

    I have found more interesting and more relevant parallel:
    S. Ossetia is comparable with ... Texas ! it has also voted for its independence from Mexico, became a rebuplic for 10 years, then fought for it's independence, than asked US to help, then US defeated Mexico and finally annexed Texas. S. Ossetia's history more or less the same. only it is not annexed by Russia.

  8. Anonymous,

    Texas! Who would have thought? Very interesting.


Because all comments on this blog are moderated, there will be some delay before your comment is approved.