Max Thurman: The 'Robocop' General

On June 13, 1989, Secretary of defense Dick Cheney issued a two-paragraph press release announcing the pending retirement of Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, 58. Five weeks later, on July 20, Cheney quietly reversed himself, announcing that Thurman had just been appointed commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command at Quarterly Heights, Panama. The full story of what happened between June 13 and July 20 is still a matter of conjecture, but this much at least is known: at some point, Thurman had a meeting with George Bush that led him to the hottest command slot in the post-cold warrior Army.

One year later Thurman is widely known as the man who brought down Manuel Noriega. What is Also clear, in the wake of NEWSWEEK'S reporting on U.S. plans for a military offensive against the Colombian drug cartels, is that Thurman is the Pentagon's point man in the hemispheric war against cocaine. How those plans turn out, and whether Thurman will be hero or goat, very much remain to be seen. But for the moment, at least the brusque, hard-driving North Carolinian is being touted as one of the best generals around--the kind of soldier who throws himself into his mission relentlessly and totally. Thurman, to cite one pertinent biographic detail, has never married, and a Pentagon official says he has just "never had time" for a personal life. "That wasn't his purpose for bring," this official says. "his cause has been furthering Army objectives... He's sort of like a RoboCop."

RoboCop or not, Thurman is a formidable leader--a man who drives his staff with a combination of brute energy and force of intellect. H is something of a rarity among Army generals in that he is not a WestPoint graduate, and he has long been known by fellow officers as "the Maxatollah" for his by-the-book zeal. He has now turned Southern Command upside down by purging officers loyal to his predecessor. The purge has led to grumbling at Quarry Heights and Thurman, some joke, is now in a dead heat with Noriega for the title of Most Hated General in Panama.

But Thurman is adept at staring down his critics. After the Panama invasion, he dazzaled a roomful of senators by delivering a masterful briefing entirely without notes. And when visiting members of Congress peppered his staff with acrid questions about the Army's rock-music barrage of the papal nunciature, Thurman himself stood up. "I am the music man," he said defiantly, and the question was dropped.

Delicate mission: Like the invasion of Panama itself, Thurman's appointment to Southern Command sends an unmistakable message to Latin America--and to his critics that is precisely the problem. In their view, Thurman lacks both the knowledge and the diplomatic skill required for delicate a mission, and some predict that his hardcharging style will touch off an anti-America backlash. "Thurman had barely set foot in Latin America and suddenly he's Napoleon," says one unhappy Southcom veteran. "And now he has the answer to any problem, in Panama or wherever: send in the troops." His defenders says Thurman knows exactly where the political line is. "He'll move right up to the line," a former aide says, "but the won't step over it." If so, Thurman may yet become the mailed first behind the velvet glove of U.S. policy toward the region--and if he fails, Bush's drug-war strategy will almost certainly falter too.