I. The Ghost Who Walks
Last week, the reappearance of a figure from the recent past briefly stirred the amnesiac fog that enfolds the brutal reality of the American empire. Former Panamanian ruler Manuel Noriega was taken from the American prison which has been his home for the past 21 years and flown to Paris, where he is to stand trial for decades-old drug-trafficking charges.
The extradition was itself illegal. Noriega, who was captured after the illegal American invasion of his country in 1989, was classed by the United States as a "prisoner of war." In fact, he is the only official POW in American hands today; the empire's innumerable Terror War captives have been denied this designation and its legal protections under the Geneva Conventions. But of course the United States long ago stopped paying even lip service to those "quaint" strictures, as the Noriega case once again demonstrates. Under the Geneva Conventions, POWs cannot be sent by their captors to a third country. But Washington wants to keep Noriega – a former CIA asset who left the rez and defied his imperial paymasters – under wraps, even though his U.S. sentence for drug charges has now been served. So off he went to France at the order of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – convention, and Conventions, be damned.
But why is it so vital to keep the ex-CIA hireling deep-sixed? Simon Tisdall has some answers in the Guardian. Tisdall notes that the U.S. invasion was ordered by Noriega's former CIA boss turned president, George Herbert Walker Bush, to complete an American-backed coup that had failed a few months earlier. Bush sent 24,000 troops to the tiny Central American country – which had been illegally hived off from Colombia in the early 20th century in order to give America control over the territory where the Panama Canal would be built.
By the time of the Bush invasion, American elites had been fuming for years over the Panama Canal Treaty signed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, which finally gave control of the Canal to Panama. Even though the treaty would not go into effect until 1999, it evoked bitter and virulent controversy, as anyone around in those days will remember well: Carter was a traitor, a socialist, a weakling, giving away sacred American territory and undermining national security, etc., etc. In fact, the battle was in many ways a test-run for the well-oiled combination of corporate interests, aggressive nationalism and right-wing crankery that would dominate American life after 1980.
Noriega came to power after the death of the Panamanian leader who had signed the treaty, Omar Torrijos – who went down in a plane crash a few months after anti-treaty stalwarts Ronald Reagan and CIA chief Herbie Walker took over in Washington. Noriega, who had been a CIA "asset" since the late 1950s, carried on his yeoman service on behalf of his new bosses for awhile – but the assumption of formal power went to his head. He forgot he was a servant, was surly with his masters, and finally crossed the line: refusing to take part in the secret terrorist war that Reagan and Bush were waging, with Iranian money, against Nicaragua. Suddenly, Noriega's manifold crimes and massive corruption, which Washington had tolerated – indeed rewarded – for decades, suddenly became matters of urgent concern. Noriega went from imperial pet to "new Hitler" in fairly short order. Tisdall takes up the story:
Noriega was a thug. But for many years, he was America's thug – until he turned on his mentors. Trained in military and intelligence matters at the School of the Americas, he became for a time a valued CIA "asset" working for the agency and the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Government documents submitted to the Miami court in pre-trial hearings in 1991-92 confirmed that Noriega was paid (at least) $320,000 by the US government for services rendered. Simply put, Noriega knew too much. He acted as a cold war listening post for the US during turbulent times in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, according to William Buckley's book, Panama: the Whole Story. …
In this capacity, Noriega would have heard a great deal of interesting material, as the Reagan-Bush team aided and abetted horrific atrocities carried out by their right-wing proxies in the region, depredations that killed thousands of innocent people – more than 200,000 in Guatemala alone. Back to Tisdall:
The jury in Noriega's trial on 10 narrowly defined drug-related counts heard none of this. Nor did it hear about Noriega's contacts with Oliver North, John Poindexter, CIA chief William Casey and other key figures in the Ronald Reagan and Bush administrations who, allegedly, connived in the supply of arms to Nicaragua's Contra rebels paid for with Medellín cartel drug cash. There were many other such allegations; and Noriega claimed to have proof of senior US politicians' connivance in drug trafficking for political purposes. But none was allowed in evidence.
Having served his sentence, the "prisoner of war" Noriega should now be returned to his own country. But this cannot be allowed. As Tisdall notes:
In Panama, Noriega would have been free to tell all he knew. And for many powerful men in Washington, some of whom are still alive, that prospect was potentially dangerous. The outcome of the Noriega case in Miami, like the 1989 invasion, was never in doubt from day one. It was a show trial, a warning to others. It was pure vengeance. It was a cover-up of decades of illicit regional meddling. But it was also a demonstration of raw American power, of which the world was soon to have more frightening examples.
II. The Past is Prologue
What does this "ancient" history have to do with our brave new world, where world-renowned progressive heroes and Peace Laureates guide with benign and benevolent hand? Plenty.
Noriega's case reminds us of the cynical and brutal nature of the American empire's actual operations. Not the gauzy pictures painted by the increasingly all-pervading "psy-ops" warfare conducted by our militarist honchos to control the "information battlespace" of the American mind (as powerfully detailed in a new piece by Tom Hayden), but the genuine blood-soaked filth and crime which undergirds "the shining city on a hill." This is not old news or ancient history: it is happening today, all over the world, in shadows and corners we will never see – except in stolen glimpses revealed by accident, or by leaks from one pack of courtiers trying to bring down another, or through diligent efforts of a handful of journalists and investigators, and the enormous courage of some survivors and eyewitnesses to the operations of power.
The rise of Barack Obama to temporary management of the imperial enterprise has changed nothing of this. Nor was it ever intended to. As I noted here back in March 2008, before Obama had secured the Democratic nomination:
Well, it doesn't really get much plainer than this, does it? From AP:
Obama Aligns Foreign Policy with GOP
Sen. Barack Obama said Friday … "that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush's father, of John F. Kennedy, of, in some ways, Ronald Reagan...."
Obama is doing two things here, reaching out to two very different audiences, on different wavelengths. First, for the hoi polloi, he is simply pandering in the most shameless way imaginable, throwing out talismans for his TV-addled audience to comfort themselves with: "You like JFK? I'll be like him! You like Reagan? I'll be like him too! You like the first George Bush? Hey, I'll be just like him as well!" This is a PR tactic that goes all the way back to St. Paul the spinmeister, who boasted of his ability to massage his message and "become all things to all men." Obama has long proven himself a master of this particular kind of political whoredom -- much like Bill Clinton, in fact, another champion of "bipartisan foreign policy" who for some strange reason got left off Obama's list of role models.
But beyond all the rubes out there, Obama is also signaling to the real masters of the United States, the military-corporate complex, that he is a "safe pair of hands" -- a competent technocrat who won't upset the imperial applecart but will faithfully follow the 60-year post-war paradigm of leaving "all options on the table" and doing "whatever it takes" to keep the great game of geopolitical dominance going strong.
What other conclusion can you draw from Obama's reference to these avatars, and his very pointed identification with them? He is saying, quite clearly, that he will practice foreign policy just as they did. And what they do? Committed, instigated, abetted and countenanced a relentless flood of crimes, murders, atrocities, deceptions, corruptions, mass destruction and state terrorism… [This was followed by detailed examples from this glorious record.]
What Obama promised, he has delivered. Escalating the Terror War, expanding arbitrary powers over life and liberty (even openly proclaiming the power to kill American citizens by executive order), protecting the avowed torturers of his predecessor while continuing "enhanced interrogations" by American agents and foreign proxies, filling the coffers of war profiteers with ever-increasing mountains of loot – in all things he has proved himself an apt pupil and worthy heir of the imperial ancestors he lauded.
Just last month had another of those rare glimpses into the thuggish reality of imperial power in its continuity under Obama. It was in Afghanistan, now ruled by Obama's hand-picked commander, General Stanley McChrystal – a long-time expert in the blackest ops of covert war, a man "whose entire career in Iraq remains a classified secret," as Hayden reminds us. It was a small story, making only the slightest stir for a few hours: the report that Obama's secret terror warriors had dug the bullets out of the bodies of two pregnant women and a teenage girl they had killed in a botched night raid on a home that was actually occupied by officials of the American-backed Afghan government. Evidence indicated that the American agents used knives – or for all we know, can openers – to pry their bullets loose from the still-fresh corpses, and from the surrounding walls which had been sprayed, berserker-style, in the raid. Then the respectable official spokesmen for the American military put out the story that the dead women had been victims of an "honor killing" at the hands of the barbaric natives: the hands, in fact, of the two men who had also been killed in the raid – a police commander and a prosecutor for the U.S-backed government, now transformed into "insurgents."
In this particular case, the operations of the fog machine were thwarted by a reporter for the UK paper, The Times, who, practicing the ever more novel art of journalism, uncovered the truth by going to the scene and talking to eyewitnesses, survivors, and local officials. Finally, weeks later, the American brass were forced to admit that their agents had murdered the innocent villagers, violated their corpses and then lied to the world about it. The usual scrapings from petty cash were passed around to the survivors -- $10,000 for five lives. American officials made the usual apologies. "Black Ops" McChrystal made the usual noises about avoiding civilian casualties and tightening the reins on his night riders.
That's it. That's all that happened. No one was punished, no one was prosecuted, no one was fired or even reprimanded for this act of murder and butchery. The story appeared, there was the slightest parting of the cloud, then the fog enfolded reality again.
And this was just one story. What of the many – the countless – other stories that never see even a glint of the light of day? The incidents that go on – the murder, corruption, subornation, subversion, thuggery, and crime of every description that are the daily business of maintaining a system of military dominion and rampant oligarchy? We don't know the half of it, the tenth of it; we wander in the fog, hearing the distant ghostly moans, but never knowing where they come from, or what they mean.