Exercise in futility


WHEN THE U.S. invaded Panama in 1989, one of its stated objectives, in President Bush's words, was "to combat drug trafficking." The other was to rid Panama of a wanton dictator and bring him to trial.

The latter objective is still only partly realized: Gen. Manuel Noriega, lounging in the relative comfort of federal custody, is still a long way from a court date. The former goal, judging by recent reports, was an unqualified failure. Experts on drug traffic say more cocaine is now being shipped through Panama, at lower prices, than before the invasion.

This dismal conclusion does not even take into account the botching of the military action, with hundreds of civilian casualties and the devastation of the Panamanian capital.

Irony, of course, is one of the luxuries of hindsight. But it is hard to resist pointing out that the recent rise in the volume of illegal drugs passing through Panama is directly due to reforms enacted in the wake of the invasion and the removal of Noriega from power. The new Panamanian authorities wanted to prevent another tin-pot dictator from usurping power. The ill-conceived solution was to sharply reduce the ranks of the military and the police, strip them of sophisticated equipment and sharply diminish their powers to carry out operations. At the same time, President Guillermo Endara said he was committed to curtailing the drug trade.

No one is shedding any tears for Noriega, though his legal saga is becoming a farce. But the invasion of Panama, more than ever, appears to have been an expensive and destructive exercise in futility, underscoring the essential bankruptcy of the U.S. strategy for its war on drugs.

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