Noriega, Karzai, and the Sleazebags We Cultivate

The bent, shuffling figure in a porkpie hat shown on the news being hustled to an Air France plane by U.S. marshals on Monday was impossible to recognize as Manuel “the Pineapple” Noriega, the Panamanian dictator I used to know.

Once so vilified that President George H.W. Bush launched a little war called Operation Just Cause to arrest him in 1989, Noriega has served more than 20 years in American jails for his connections to Colombian drug cartels. Now 76, he’s been extradited to Paris to spend, no doubt, many years more in the prisons of France, where he’s already been convicted in absentia on money-laundering charges.

Noriega’s ruthless rise and his precipitous fall are all ancient history now, but it’s worth taking a look at his case today not so much to evaluate his crimes as to examine why he thought he could get away with them, and what lessons it may hold for U.S. ties to various useful but treacherous players around the world, starting with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. As a crime-boss-cum-dictator in Panama, Noriega was unique; as one of many shadowy clients and creations of Washington around the world, not so much.

Noriega used to think the United States (or at least the Central Intelligence Agency) would support him no matter what he did, and the way he clawed his way to power in Panama in the 1970s and 1980s seemed to prove the point. Never mind his obvious corruption, his lucrative links to the Medellín drug bosses, the double- and triple-agent games he played with Cuba and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Never mind the allegations that he ordered political opponents murdered, including Hugo Spadafora, a quasi-revolutionary who may have had his own CIA ties and whose body was found in rural Panama tortured, beheaded, and stuffed into a U.S. Mail bag in 1985. Noriega clearly thought that Washington just couldn’t do without him. Washington thought he was sliding toward psychosis, but wasn’t sure what to do about it.

You’re familiar with the pattern. You can see it at work today, most obviously, with Afghanistan’s Karzai: the Obama administration has discovered it can’t live with him, but it can’t live without him, and he knows it. So who is controlling whom? It’s far from clear.

At least the disastrous codependency in Afghanistan is mostly out in the open. More often, Washington’s key relationships with sleazebags are hidden in the parallel universe of the intelligence services, and once you get a glimpse of them they’re enough to make your head spin. Thus London and Washington found it useful to rehabilitate the murderous regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafi partly because of his help to MI6 and the CIA in rolling up clandestine nuclear-arms networks. The allegedly genocidal regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (just reelected) bought tacit support from Washington back in the 1990s by turning in Sudan’s former terrorist allies like Carlos the Jackal.

Until Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, he had been considered a friend of America because he was fighting Iran’s revolutionaries. During the war Saddam waged against the mullahs from 1980 to 1988, the CIA and NSA passed him vital satellite intelligence, the U.S. Navy protected ships exporting his oil, and American labs even supplied the germ cultures that helped him build a biological-weapons program.

The story of Panama’s spooky strongman was a counterpoint to all these other contradictory and confusing intrigues, and his ouster over the Christmas holidays in 1989 was regarded in Washington as a military precedent for wars to come. The official Pentagon history of the incursion summed it up nicely in the first sentence: “Operation JUST CAUSE, one of the shortest armed conflicts in American military history, is also one of the most relevant to campaigns as we anticipate them in the twenty-first century.”

As it happens, I got to know Noriega when I was a correspondent in Central America in the early 1980s. I visited him in his office and at his home; I went to a birthday party for one of his kids; I interviewed him on the record and off the record several times. These were the years when communist-backed revolutions threatened to dominate the isthmus, and Washington pushed back by supporting the contras in Nicaragua and various generals in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

In that Manichaean, murderous Cold War milieu, Noriega managed to talk to just about everyone, and did so all the time. Whose side was he on? You didn’t have to sit with him very long to realize that he was serving himself first, all others only incidentally, but he liked to be useful to anyone who could be useful to him. According to Stephen Kinzer in Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq, Noriega was on the CIA payroll for almost 30 years altogether, doing just that.

Noriega could be charming in some settings. At his home, receiving guests, he was pleasant, friendly, and gracious but oddly shy and awkward. Acne had pitted, scarred, and hardened the skin on his face when he was a kid, which is why his enemies called him “the Pineapple.” In public, he looked like Edward G. Robinson in the classic 1931 gangster film Little Caesar, deeply angry, utterly ruthless, and suicidally proud.

The first time I met Noriega was in 1982, when he was the intelligence chief of what was then called the Panamanian National Guard. A couple of his men picked me up at my hotel. They told me not to worry about stepping on the assault rifles on the floor beneath my feet in the back of their BMW. They drove me into the underground garage of the Guard’s headquarters, a place where I couldn’t be seen entering, and where nobody would know when, or if, I left. The anteroom of Noriega’s office had what he considered art on display: paintings on black velvet of little children with enormous tear-filled eyes; a collection of toys and trinkets in the form of toads, or sapos, which is Panamanian argot for police informers.

Inside Noriega’s subterranean office he proudly displayed a photo of himself with the late Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan. (An infamous Mossad agent, Mike Harari, would later be a close adviser to Noriega.) As I waited for the Panamanian spymaster to show up, his voluptuous secretary dusted around me. She wore sandals, and I remember looking at her toenails, then her fingernails—all painted with red spider webs. The interview was predictable boilerplate except for the dark language Noriega used when he started talking about social injustices in Panama. “Social injustices,” said this man from a very poor family, “are like a damp corner where there may grow poisonous mushrooms, and mold, and evil odors.”

In July 1982 the civilian president of Panama, Aristides Royo, suddenly announced that he was resigning. The reason, according to official communiqués, was “a sore throat.” I got Noriega on the phone. If this was not a coup d’état, what would he call it? The sore-throat line wasn’t going to wash. Noriega knew his American patrons would be sensitive about the power shift, but he couldn’t resist. “Well,” he said, enjoying himself, “don’t quote me saying this, but I’d call it ‘a constitutional coup d’état à la panameña.’ ”

Noriega kept on laughing at the Americans and their concerns until the murder of Spadafora started a rapid downward spiral in his relations with Washington. Meanwhile, the changing international environment made his connections less useful, his corruption less acceptable. By early 1989 the Cold War was ending, and then-president Bush had committed himself to a war on drugs. Suddenly Noriega’s criminal ties, which were tolerated for at least a decade, became unacceptable. By the end of the year, when the 26,000 U.S. forces in Operation Just Cause went into action, Noriega had nowhere to turn. Most of the fighting ended after a couple of days. The whole thing was over and Noriega on his way to jail in two weeks.

It all looked so easy from Washington, like such a great precedent for pushing out dictator-allies when they overreached and became, or were declared, dictator-enemies. Of course, I don’t know how Noriega reacts in his cell when he reads about what happened to the United States after it invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, but my guess is that his stiff, scarred face cracks open in a broad smile.