Operation Just Cause Term Paper


Operation Just Cause was the United States (U.S.) military invasion of Panama that deposed Manuel Noriega in December 1989, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. The military incursion into Panama began on December 20, 1989, at 0100 local time. The operation involved 24,000 U.S. troops and over 300 aircraft - including AH-64 helicopter gunships, AC-130 aircraft and F-117A stealth aircraft, which was used for the first time in combat. These were deployed against the 16,000 members of the Panama Defense Force. This action was preceded by over a year of diplomatic tension between the United States and Panama, including an attempted coup against Noriega, and several months of U.S. troop buildup in military bases within the former Panama Canal Zone. The operation began with an assault of strategic installations such as the civilian Paitilla airport in Panama City and military command centers throughout the country. The attack on the central headquarters of the PDF, referred to as La Comandancia, touched off several fires, one of which destroyed most of the adjoining and heavily populated El Chorrillo neighborhood in downtown Panama City. During the firefight at the Comandancia, the PDF downed one AH-64 helicopter. Just Cause was carried out by a joint all-service task force based on two Army divisions, an independent Army brigade, a Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and smaller elite Special Forces and Army Ranger units. The task force was overwhelmingly superior in size, capability, and training to the PDF. By the end of daylight on the second day of the operation, SOUTHCOM forces had effectively crushed all resistance. By December 25th, military operations were over, with the exception of efforts to capture Noriega. On December 24th, he had taken refuge in the quarters of the Papal Nuncio.

The Bush Administration was marginally effective in identifying political objectives and applying military resources to accomplish those objectives because it was disorganized and tentative. Opportunities were missed and classified assets were compromised. The mix of forces used caused casualties and damage to property that was not necessary.

Supporting Idea 1

In his statement, Bush claimed that Noriega had declared that a state of war existed between the United States and Panama and that he also threatened the lives of the approximately 35,000 Americans living there. There had been numerous clashes between U.S. And Panamanian forces; one American had been killed a few days earlier and several incidents of harassment of Americans had taken place. During the attack, the U.S. unleashed a force of 24,000 troops equipped with highly sophisticated weaponry and aircraft against a country with an army smaller than the New York City Police Department. With uncanny echoes of Grenada less than a decade earlier, this invasion against a sovereign nation was made in the name of the protection of American lives as well as the defense of the Panama Canal, the restoration of democracy, and the removal of Noriega and his drug trafficking operation - reasons which might have sounded good at the White House but failed to convince anyone with a knowledge of the history of U.S. -Panamanian relations. "With the strategically important Panama Canal scheduled to pass from U.S. To Panamanian control at the end of the century, and 12,000 American military personnel and many of their families living in Panama, the Bush administration wanted Noriega out."

Eyewitness accounts of the bombing and the fear felt by the people as they saw their families killed, their homes destroyed, and their city devastated, powerfully convey the human suffering caused by this act of aggression. In contrast to the images of Panamanians welcoming the Americans as a liberating force which the mainstream broadcast media presented, the angry voices of Panamanians describe the horror, pain, and continued disruption of their lives. While some might call it heavy-handed, the ironic juxtaposition of official commentary by government spokesmen with actual footage of the invasion and its aftermath succeeds...


military in the days following the attack, the number of Panamanians killed, and the continued impact on the people in the form of homelessness, unemployment, and political instability.
Supporting Idea 2

Earlier that year Noriega had nullified presidential elections that had been won by candidates from opposition parties. In addition, a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded that numerous human rights violations occurred in Panama during Noriega's government. On October 2, early in the morning, U.S. commanders received word that a coup was underway in Panama. Because the coup had not been sponsored by the U.S., there was indecision in the Bush administration regarding whether the U.S. could support the coup. General Maxwell Thurman asked the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, if they could apprehend Noriega. "If they bring him to you,' Powell said, 'you can do it, but you don't have authority to go in and get him.' A voluntary turnover was okay."

Furthermore three options were developed by Powell to guide Thurman.

1. If Noriega was brought to a U.S. base by the rebels, he could be accepted - "in a heartbeat," Powell said.

2. If U.S. forces could be used very discreetly and covertly to assist the rebels in bringing Noriega to a U.S. base, that too could be done on Thurman's authority. Thurman could tell the rebels, "If you need assistance to bring Noriega out [and] that will not involve a show of U.S. force, we'll do it." That would mean one or two U.S. soldiers helping, not much more.

3. If Thurman thought there was an opportunity to go get Noriega overtly with just a very small U.S. force, he could go ahead and plan that. But that would clearly be an escalation, requiring a new administration policy. This small-force option would have to be approved by President Bush. "We reserve that authority up here," Powell said. "I've got to go to the President." Powell added that communications to the White House were set up and he could get presidential permission quickly if Thurman thought it might work.

Powell further instructed Thurman to make certain that a U.S. law enforcement officer, FBI or DEA, was present in order to make certain that the arrest was legal. "I want a good bust,' he said."

By 2:30 in the afternoon the coup was over. It failed, because of lack of U.S. intervention. In the aftermath, administration officials moved quickly to distance themselves from the operation, but this effort failed to mollify critics in Congress. Democratic Representative Les Aspin said, "We ought to be ready at any opportunity to use the confusion and the uncertainty of a coup attempt... To do something about Mr. Noriega."

North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms labeled the administration a bunch of "Keystone Kops," and said, "After this, no member of the Panamanian Defense Forces can be expected to act against Noriega."

Moderate Oklahoma Democrat Congressman Dave McCurdy, said, "Yesterday makes Jimmy Carter look like a man of resolve. There's a resurgence of the wimp factor."

Supporting Idea 3

Panama had become a center for drug money laundering and a transit point for drug trafficking to the United States and Europe. Noriega had been singled out for direct involvement in these drug trafficking operations. "Suspected of involvement in illegal drug trafficking, Noriega ran a notoriously corrupt regime. Although he once had been one of the CIA's key Latin American assets, the administration now viewed him as an outlaw and an enemy of U.S. interests."

As the operation progressed, the search for Noriega intensified. The U.S. eventually announced a one million reward for him, hoping that a member of the PDF would turn him in. It appeared that lack of intelligence as to his whereabouts was coming back to haunt the administration. Before the operation, it was conventional wisdom that Noriega would go down fighting rather than be captured, but now just locating him was becoming a major challenge. Noriega sought refuge in the Papal Nuncio on December 24th, where he remained until January 3rd, surrendering to members of the delta Force. It had been a long eleven days for the Bush administration, including an incident where the residence of the Nicaraguan am-bassador to Panama had been violated. "On Friday, December 29, Powell was watching a CNN report that U.S. troops had entered the residence of the Nicaraguan ambassador to Panama. The camera revealed a sign the size of a manhole cover showing unmistakably that it was the ambassador's residence. On the sidewalk outside the house, Powell spotted the distinctive cracks made by U.S. armored personnel carriers. He was furious. Invading an embassy was out of bounds. International convention made such buildings absolutely immune; they were the equivalent of national property."

Supporting Idea 4

Members of Congress and others in the U.S. political establishment claimed that Noriega threatened the neutrality of the Panama Canal and that the United States had the right under the treaties to intervene militarily to protect the canal. As a response to this, in the Fall of 1989, President…

Sources Used in Documents:


Bob Woodward, The Commanders (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991).

Woodward, p. 83.

Woodward, p. 124.

Woodward, p. 124.

Cite this Document:

"Operation Just Cause" (2005, July 23) Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

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