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The Panama Canal: Can We Afford To Give It Up

The Panama Canal: Can We Afford To Give It Up?

 

AUTHOR Major Frank M. Stewart, USMC

 

CSC 1988

 

SUBJECT AREA National Security

 

 

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

TITLE: THE PANAMA CANAL: CAN WE AFFORD TO GIVE IT UP?

 

 

 

I. Purpose: To identify the strategic, political, and

military importance of the Panama Canal, to identify present

problems in each area, and to propose a solution to these

problems

 

II. Thesis: Although the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977

outlines the return of the Canal to Panama and initially

improved diplomatic relations, the return of the Canal will

have significant strategic, political, and military reper-

cussions for the long-range interests of the United States.

 

III. Data: The present political situation in Panama has

deteriorated to the point where the security of the United

States and its allies is questionable. The security of the

Panama Canal continues to be the main issue. Critics have

argued that the Canal is no longer strategically important

while others have strongly supported the Canal's strategic

importance. Panamanian politics have degenerated to a

"Mafia-like" government ruled by a dictator, General Manuel

Noriega. As a result, the government is closely compared to

an organized crime family. The U.S. government has cut off

all economic aid and has charged General Noriega with crimi-

nal charges. Additionally, one hundred U.S. Marines have

been sent to Panama to emphasize the importance of the Canal

to the U.S. The United States has refused to recognize the

present government of Panama and recognized only the exiled

government as the true government of Panama. Strategically,

Panama governs our southern flank and is the key to the

security of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S.

cannot allow a communist presence in Panama. If General

Noriega continues in power, the United States could be

forced to take military action. Militarily, the Canal is of

tremendous importance for moving militay forces from ocean

to ocean, rapid deployment of forces, and training forces in

jungle warfare. The U.S. cannot allow a corrupt government

to continue, or a communist power to control the Canal. The

United States must take action now before it is too late and

war comes to this hemisphere.

 

IV. Summary: The Panama Canal plays an important role in

the security of the United States. Political changes must

occur in Panama with a democratically elected government

that is friendly to the United States. The United States

must continue to emphasize the strategic importance of the

Canal and not allow communist influence to continue Mili-

tarily, the Canal must continue to be defended with U.S.

forces and the military bases used for training U.S. forces.

Then and only then will the strategic, political, and mili-

tary objectives of the United States be met.

 

V. Recommendations: General Noriega must be removed as the

leader of Panama. Democracy must be reinstituted and a

President elected who is friendly to the United States. The

Panama Canal Treaty of 1977 must be declared invalid and a

new treaty negotiated. The defense of the Canal should be a

joint function of both Panamanian and U.S. forces. The

United States must have indefinite basing rights for U.S.

armed forces in Panama.

 

 

TITLE: THE PANAMA CANAL: CAN WE AFFORD TO GIVE-IT UP?

 

OUTLINE

 

Thesis: Although the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977 outlined

the return of the Canal to Panama and initially improved

diplomatic relations, the return of the Canal will have

significant strategic, political, and military repercussions

for the long-range interests of the United States.

 

I. Strategic Importance of the Panama Canal

A. Security of the United States

1. Flexibility and mobility of naval forces

2. Two-ocean Navy concept

B. Security of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico

1. Southern flank

2. Facilities in Panama

C. Communist Control of Canal

D. Panama Canal - Maritime bottleneck of the world

E. Loss of Canal - Strategic significance

 

II Political Importance of the Panama Canal

A. Panamanian Political Victory

B. 1977 Treaty

C. Panamanian Political Problems

1. Corruption of military

2. Election fraud

D. U.S. and Panamanian Relations

E. Communist Presence

F. Present Political Situation

 

III. Military Importance of the Canal

A. Transfer of Combat Power

B. Economic Considerations

C. Training Facilities

D. Deployment of Combat Power

E. Defense of Canal

F. Use of Combat Power

1. Against Panamanians

2. Limited Intensity conflict

3. Costly

4. Prolonged conflict

 

 

THE PANAMA CANAL: CAN WE AFFORD TO GIVE IT UP?

 

 

 

It is now December 30, 1999. Tomorrow the Panama Canal

 

will belong officially to the Republic of Panama. A General

 

Manuel Noriega-type dictator publicly declares himself ruler

 

for life. Furthermore, he announces that the government of

 

Panama now will be considered communist and modeled after

 

Cuba. Additionally, he states that on January 1 all diplo-

 

matic relations will be broken with the United States.

 

Furthermore, he orders all American armed forces out of the

 

Republic of Panama and denies the use of the Panama Canal to

 

the United States. Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Soviet Union

 

support him politically and militarily. General Noriega is

 

now master of a waterway that is of enormous importance to

 

the United States and other maritime nations.

 

In Washington, the President of the United States calls

 

an emergency meeting with his top military and political

 

advisors. The subject is Panama, the Canal, and "the little

 

dictator." What will be the outcome of this meeting? Will

 

the President commit military forces? Is the Canal still

 

important to the defense of the United States? Is the Canal

 

worth going to war over? All of these questions must be

 

answered if action is to be taken. Although the Panama

 

Canal Treaty of 1977 outlined the return of the Canal to

 

Panama and initially improved diplomatic relations, the

 

return of the Canal will have significant strategic, politi-

 

cal, and military repercussions for the long-range interests

 

of the United States.

 

Strategically, the Panama Canal plays an important role

 

in the security of the United States. The Panama Canal

 

provides the United States with the ability to rapidly move

 

its naval forces from the Pacific to the Atlantic, thus

 

providing flexibility and mobility to our naval forces in

 

peace and war.1 If the Panamanian government closed the

 

Canal to the United States, our naval forces would have to

 

rely on what naval forces were available in theater. Addi-

 

tional forces could be introduced only by transiting the tip

 

of South America or traveling long distances across other

 

waterways. Critics of the Canal have argued that since the

 

United States now has a "two-ocean Navy," the Canal is no

 

longer important. Retired Marine General Victor H. Krulak

 

refuted critics of the Canal when he blasted the argument

 

that the Canal was no longer needed because of the "two-

 

ocean Navy." He further stated that the only way the Navy

 

could exercise flexibility in times of emergency is by

 

shuttling ships through the canal. If the Navy could do

 

this, only then could it be described as a "two-ocean

 

Navy."2

 

Another strategic consideration is the security of the

 

Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. If the use of the Panama

 

Canal and its facilities were denied to the United States,

 

the United States would lose its southern and western anchor

 

in the Caribbean. Additionally, when we consider the impor-

 

tance of southern Florida, the Florida Keys, Guantanamo Bay,

 

and Puerto Rico, Panama offers air and land facilities which

 

strengthen the security of our southern flank. It is within

 

the above framework that Panama is of greatest significance

 

to the control of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.3

 

The scenario mentioned earlier that the Canal could be

 

owned and operated by a Communist government. Strategic-

 

ally, this would be a serious blow to the security of

 

America. As long as the United States can own and operate

 

the Canal, it will always be an asset to our strategic

 

interests. Once a nation or nations, actively or poten-

 

tially hostile to he United States, takes complete control

 

of the Canal, it will be a menace to the security of the

 

United States.4 This could become a reality if the United

 

States fails to act now before the treaty expires.

 

The Panama Canal is recognized as one of the main

 

maritime bottlenecks of the world. The Canal allows ships

 

of all nations to transit easily from one ocean to another.

 

Strategically, these sea routes are vital arteries connec-

 

ting the United States with its allies and trading partners.

 

Hemispheric safety of the United States depends on the

 

ability of the United States Navy to control the trade

 

routes of the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic, and the Pacific.5

 

The loss of the Canal will certainly interfere with the

 

security of the United States and many other nations.

 

Furthermore, the ability of the United States to react in

 

crisis or war would certainly be reduced.

 

Turning over of the Panama Canal to the Republic of

 

Panama could prove to be an unacceptable strategic loss to

 

the United States. General Krulak wrote the following:

 

The idealist who negotiated the surrender of this

great strategic asset, through which two-thirds of

our imported strategic minerals pass, did so on

the fragile assumption that Panama could handle

their responsibility.6

 

It appears that our strategic interests are now gov-

 

erned by how Panama handles its responsibilities. Histor-

 

ically, the Panamanian government has had problems maintain-

 

ing and operating even the smallest of facilities. I lived

 

in the Republic of Panama during the last three years.

 

During this time, I noticed that every facility that was

 

turned over to the Panamanian government quickly became

 

poorly maintained. For example, the United States Embassy

 

put the Panama Railroad off limits to all United States

 

personnel. The Railroad was run down and declared unsafe.

 

Additionally, other facilities in the Zone, under Panamanian

 

control, quickly became poorly maintained. The list could

 

go on and on. I believe the only reason the Canal continues

 

to work is that we still operate it. If the Panamanian

 

government cannot responsibly handle even the smallest fa-

 

cility, I seriously doubt they can handle the responsibility

 

of operating the Canal.

 

The Panama Canal Zone unites Panama politically and

 

emotionally.7 The 1977 Panama Canal Treaty was a boost to

 

Panama's sense of pride and nationalism. The treaty trans-

 

ferred ownership of the canal to Panama on 31 December 1999.

 

Additionally, it turned over the defense of the Canal to

 

Panama's military. This was a major political victory for

 

Panama.

 

Politically the validity of the 1977 Treaty has often

 

been debated in the United States. Opposition to the Treaty

 

was intense. The only way the Treaty was ratified by the

 

Senate was the addition of a reservation to the Treaty. The

 

reservation asserted the United States' right, if anyone

 

interfered with Canal operations, to use military force to

 

restore its integrity. However, after the Senate approved

 

the treaty, the Panamanian government declared that the

 

United States had no right to use force. The Panamanian

 

government's declaration against the U.S. right to use force

 

certainly raised the question of whether or not the Treaty

 

was valid.8

 

Panama's political and internal problems began with the

 

death of Panama's ruler Omar Torrijos in a mysterious plane

 

crash in 1981. After the accident, General Noriega quickly

 

manipulated his own appointment to the top military position

 

in Panama. In 1983 he succeeded Dario Paredes as Commander-

 

in-Chief, and promised Paredes his support in the 1984

 

presidential elections. Noriega then withdrew the military

 

support for another candidate, Nicolas Barletta. Barletta

 

won the election, but not without many charges of voting

 

fraud. He later was forced to resign by General Noriega in

 

1985 as a result of Barietta's attempt to investigate the

 

death of the opposition leader, Mr. Hugo Spadafora.

 

In 1985, United States intelligence sources revealed

 

that Noriega himself planned the late 1985 murder of Mr.

 

Spadafora, the opposition leader. Spadafora had publicly

 

accused Noriega of drug trafficking. Shortly thereafter,

 

Spadafora's body was found, tortured and headless.9 This

 

was just the beginning of political corruption in Panama.

 

In order to pressure General Noriega to resign, a

 

Federal grand jury in Miami indicted him on charges of drug

 

trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering. This is

 

the first time the United States has charged the leader of

 

an allied country with criminal acts.10

 

Since the resignation of Panama's President Barletta in

 

1985, and the appointment of Vice-President Delvalle as

 

President of Panama, General Manuel Noriega emerged as the

 

true head of government. He rules the government with a

 

"Mafia style" of leadership. According to US News and World

 

Report, dated 21 July 1987, General Noriega's accusers

 

charge him with political murder, election fraud, drug traf-

 

ficking, money laundering, gun-running, and selling United

 

States secrets and technology to Cuba's Fidel Castro and

 

Libya's Muammar Qadhafi. Furthermore, General Noriega's

 

senior command has been compared to an "organized crime"

 

family. United States officials suspect that General

 

Noriega and other senior officers get a cut of all illicit

 

cash flowing through Panama.11

 

Recently, Panamanian politics have taken a dramatic

 

turn. President Eric Delvalle publicly demanded that

 

General Noriega resign and step down as Commander of the

 

Panama Defense Force. In less than an hour, General Noriega

 

convened the National Assembly, and had President Delvalle

 

voted out as President. He then appointed Manuel Palma, a

 

friend and ally of Noriega, as Acting President. Later,

 

Delvalle was ordered out of the country, but refused to

 

leave. He is now in hiding somewhere in Panama; however,

 

he stills claims to be the legitimate President of Panama.

 

Politically, President Delvalle's ouster appears to

 

have stripped Noriega's government of international support,

 

and has isolated the new government. As a result, the

 

Organization of American States (OAS) will have to decide

 

which government to officially recognize.12

 

The United States has also refused to recognize

 

Panama's new government. Additionally, according to many

 

news reports, the United States has instituted economic

 

sanctions, and has sent an additional one hundred U. S.

 

Marines to Panama. This clearly tells Noriega that the

 

United States is not leaving Panama. Even with the con-

 

tinued focus on politics, the Panama Canal continues to be

 

the focal point of everyone's discussion. On 28 February

 

1988, Senator Lugar, on Meet the Press, stated the United

 

States should rethink its position on the Panama Canal if

 

Noriega is still in power in 1999. This is a clear indica-

 

tion that if Noriega is still in power in 1999, the validity

 

of the treaty must be re-examined. The United States should

 

not turn the Canal over to a power hostile to the United

 

States; to do so would be a tremendous blow to the security

 

of the United States and its allies.

 

Politically, the main fear is the Communist presence in

 

Panama. General Noriega himself has been a noted Communist

 

since he was a student. He has turned over the former

 

United States Naval Air Station at Coco Solo to the Soviets

 

and appointed many Communists to the local government.

 

Additionally, he has increased relations with Cuba and

 

Nicaragua. It certainly appears that democracy is history.

 

It is also apparent that the Panamanian government has

 

neither the strength or stability that would ensure the

 

safety of the Panama Canal.13

 

The United States cannot retreat from the political

 

arena in Panama. To do so would probably put the last nail

 

in the coffin of the Monroe Doctrine.14 Politically, the

 

United States must remain a dominant force in Panama.

 

America cannot allow Communist domination of Panamanian

 

politics and Communist control of the Panama Canal.

 

Panamanian politics will play an important role in the

 

future. The Panama Defense Force (PDF), even though plagued

 

by a corrupt leader, General Noriega, will be a strong

 

political force. Secondly, the National Civic Crusade (NCC)

 

has become a dominant political party. The NCC has called

 

for the removal of General Noriega and the return of democ-

 

racy. It has also refused to negotiate with the government

 

until General Noriega is removed. The NCC has stated that

 

Noriega's actions have systematically undermined the values

 

of Panama as a civilized community.15 Both the NCC and the

 

POF, coupled with United States politicians, will play an

 

important role in the political solution to the problems in

 

Panama.

 

Militarily, the Canal is essential for the rapid trans-

 

fer of combat power from one ocean to another. The Canal

 

allows logistics to flow quickly and efficiently from one

 

part of the globe to another. Economically, it is the most

 

economical route for shipping equipment and supplies to

 

support military activities. Simply put, the Canal allows

 

the United States military the speed and flexibility to

 

deploy anywhere in the world in both peacetime and war.16

 

Panama has some of the best military training facili-

 

ties available for United States forces. The Army Jungle

 

Warfare School trains United States forces year-round.

 

Live-fire ranges are also available. Training areas are

 

available for tactical field operations. The loss of these

 

facilities would limit the United States' ability to train

 

its forces in jungle operations and survival techniques.

 

The ability to rapidly deploy combat forces in times of

 

military crises is of prime importance. United States mili-

 

tary forces stationed in Panama can quickly deploy to any

 

potential crisis area in Latin America. The loss of this

 

capability will limit our capability to react. If United

 

States forces are ordered to leave Panama in 1999, plans

 

must be made on how the United States forces will be employ-

 

ed in Latin America.

 

The defense of the Canal, after all United States

 

military forces leave Panama, concerns all branches of the

 

Armed Forces. How are we going to defend the Canal with no

 

forces stationed ashore? This is a question that must be

 

answered. My answer to this question is the employment of a

 

Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), combined with United

 

States Navy, United States Army, and United States Air Force

 

forces. If Panama fails in defending and operating the

 

Canal, an operation of this type could be executed quickly.

 

Furthermore, if Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Soviet Union become

 

the dominant forces in Panama, the United States may have no

 

other choice than to use military force. The use of "the

 

bayonet" may be the only way to regain this strategic asset

 

if other means fail.

 

Even though the use of military force may be the solu-

 

tion to the Panamanian problem, it will have serious reper-

 

cussions for the United States. People sometimes forget

 

that the Panamanians have a tremendous sense of nationalism.

 

United States military intervention into internal Panamanian

 

politics could turn this nationalism against the United

 

States.

 

If the Panamanian people unite against the United

 

States, it would cause serious problems in defending the

 

Canal. The United States would have a long land mass to

 

defend and a hostile population to deal with. This could

 

result in the building of a concrete fortress around the

 

Canal to prevent the populace from taking hostile action

 

against United States personnel and the Canal.

 

Another military consideration is the number of mili-

 

tary personnel necessary to defend the Canal. If the Pana-

 

manian population is hostile, it could take as many as

 

100,000 United States troops to defend the area. This would

 

be a significant drain of personnel and equipment. Further-

 

more, to support a force of this size would be costly to the

 

United States government. As a result, the use of military

 

force must be a last resort tactic.

 

Combat readiness in Latin America depends largely on

 

United States military bases in Panama. Presently, the

 

United States has over 10,000 personnel stationed permanent-

 

ly in Panama. These forces can quickly be deployed in

 

Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. If these

 

bases were lost, the United States would have to deploy

 

troops from home bases or the sea. U.S. bases in Panama

 

must be considered vital to the security of the United

 

States, and be extended beyond the year 2000 deadline speci-

 

fied in the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977.

 

If armed conflict between the United States and Panama

 

occurred, the United States would be at war with a Panaman-

 

ian defense force of over 15,000. Additionally, the United

 

States would have to deal with Cuba, Nicaragua, and the

 

Soviet Union. Furthermore, other Latin American countries

 

would probably side with Panama, which would damage United

 

States relations with other countries, and further compli-

 

cate military operations. l seriously doubt-whether mili-

 

tary operations would be simple to plan or execute. Jungle

 

operations would be a big player in the outcome of a mili-

 

tary solution. Military operations in urban terrain would

 

also have to be conducted, since Panama City is heavily

 

populated. Military forces would have to prepare themselves

 

for prolonged low-intensity conflict operations. As anyone

 

can easily deduct, a military solution would be the most

 

costly in both American and Panamanian lives.

 

The solution to this complex problem will involve both

 

diplomats and military forces. General Victor H. Krulak

 

addressed both a political and a military approach to the

 

problem as follows:

 

We should openly support the many responsible

Panamanians who are dedicated to establishing a

free and democratic government, while withholding

all support whatsoever from the Noriega govern-

ment. And we should make our position doubly

emphatic by a substantial increase in the United

States forces in the Canal Zone.17

 

Additionally, the United States Ambassador to Panama,

 

Arthur Davis, related the future of the Canal to democrati-

 

zation. He addressed the fact that Panamanian democratic

 

functioning institutions are the best guarantee to Americans

 

and Panamanians alike for the successful turnover of the

 

Canal.18

 

Both of the above solutions point directly to a change

 

of government in Panama as the key to the security of the

 

Panama Canal. A democratic outcome is only possible if the

 

Panama Defense Force steps down and is no longer the decis-

 

ive element in national politics.19

 

I believe the solution to this problem is the immediate

 

resignation and departure from Panama of General Noriega and

 

his staff of corrupt officers and followers. Secondly, the

 

United States must back Panamanian political leaders who

 

will restore democracy to Panama and who will be friendly to

 

the United States. Furthermore, the validity of the Panama

 

Canal Treaty of 1977 is questionable. It must be considered

 

invalid and a new treaty negotiated. This new treaty must

 

require a joint defense consisting of U.S. and Panamanian

 

armed forces and indefinite basing rights for United States

 

Armed Forces. Then and only then will the strategic, polit-

 

ical, and military objectives of the United States be served.

 

The failure to obtain a solution to the Panamanian

 

problem before the year 2000 will create a serious problem

 

for the security of the United States. If democratization

 

fails to take place, and General Noriega and his "Mafia-

 

like" followers continue in power until the year 2000, the

 

United States will be forced to make a strategic, political,

 

and military decision that may bring war to Latin America.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

 

1Paul Ryan, The Panama Canal Controversy (Stanford,

California: Hoover Institutional Press, 1977), p. 142.

2Ibid., p. 145.

3Hanson Baldwin, "The Panama Canal: Sovereignty and

Security," American Enterprise Institute Defense Review, 4

(August 1977), p. 14.

4Ibid., p. 13.

5Ryan, p. 135.

6Victor Krulak, "Panama, Ten Years Later," Strategic

Review, XV (Summer 1987), p. 5.

7Abraham Lowenthal and Milton Charlton, "The United

States and Panama: Confrontation of Cooperation," American

Enterprise Institute Defense Review, 4 (August 1977), p. 7.

8Krulak, p. 5.

9Nancy Cooper, et al. "Drugs, Money and Death," News-

week, 15 February 1988, p. 35.

10Ibid., p. 32.

11Ibid., p. 33.

12William Branigan, "Panama's President in Hiding," The

Washington Post, February 28, 1988, Section A, p. 1.

13Krulak, p. 5.

14Baldwin, p. 5.

15Ricardo Calderon, "Panama: Disaster of Democracy,"

Foreign Affairs, (Winter 1987/1988), p. 336.

16Lowenthal and Charlton, p 6.

17Krulak, p. 6.

18Calderon, p. 6.

19Fred Woerner, "U.S. Southern Command - Shield of

Democracy in Latin America," Defense 87 (Nov-Dec 1987), p.

24.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Baldwin, Hanson. "The Panama Canal: Sovereignty and Secur-

ity." American Enterprise Institute Defense Review, 4

(August 1977), 12-34.

 

Branigan, William. "Panama's President is Hiding." The

Washington Post, February 28, 1988, Section A, p. 1.

 

Calderon, Ricardo. "Panama: Disaster of Democracy." Foreign

Affairs, (Winter 1987/1988), 328-347.

 

Cooper, Nancy et al. "Drugs, Money and Death." Newsweek, 15

February, 1988, pp. 32-38.

 

Krulak, Victor. "Panama, Ten Years Later." Strategic Re-

view, XV (Summer 1987), 5-6.

 

Lowenthal, Abraham and Milton Charlton. "The United States

and Panama: Confrontation of Cooperation." American

Enterprise Institute Defense Review, 4 (August 1977),

2-11.

 

Ryan, Paul. The Panama Canal Controversy. Hoover Institu-

tional Press, 1977.

 

Woerner, Fred. "U.S. Southern Command - Shield of Democracy

in Latin America." Defense 89 (Nov-Dec 1987), 20-27.



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