Elliott Abrams: How to Dispose of a Dictator Like Noriega

General Manuel Antonio Noriega shakes hands with those attending his birthday party in Panama City, February 12, 1988. CARLOS SCHIEBECK/AFP/Getty

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Manuel Noriega died last weekend. And therein lie many tales.

The ancient Latin bromide de mortuis nihil nisi bonum must be stretched to discuss Noriega, who until his capture and jailing by the United States did a great deal of harm as Panama's dictator.

It was to end the abuses, overthrow him, and to stop his trafficking in drugs that President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama in 1989.

Back in the Reagan years, Noriega had a chance to escape what were ultimately decades in prison. A good account of the circumstances exists in former secretary of state George P. Shultz's memoir, Turmoil and Triumph.

RELATED: Elliott Abrams : Why No Royal Visit for Israel?

For years we at State (Shultz, and I as Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs) urged more pressure against Noriega's nefarious activities, but we were opposed by Secretary of Defense Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Crowe.

In their view, the United States had serious interests at stake in Panama—the Canal, and about 35,000 Americans living there—so we should just pipe down about human rights abuses and other Noriega problems. Then in 1988, the U.S. Attorney in Miami indicted Noriega (without prior consultation with Washington) for drug trafficking.

Shultz and I wanted to negotiate a deal whereby Noriega would leave power in exchange for our quashing the drug indictment against him. Our reasoning was that the indictment was useless anyway while he ruled Panama, and both the United States and Panama would benefit from his departure.

As Shultz recounts, Vice President Bush (speaking mostly through then-Secretary of the Treasury James Baker) opposed this outcome, in my view because Bush was running for president and worried that quashing the indictment would make him seem soft on drugs.

President Reagan ruled against him, siding with Shultz; Bush and Baker never forgave Shultz. In the four years George H. W. Bush was president and James Baker was secretary of state, Shultz was invited back to the State Department exactly one time—when his official portrait was unveiled.

We negotiated with Noriega once President Reagan gave the go-ahead, but he refused a deal. As the saying goes, big mistake.

There's another story worth telling here, about Noriega and Reagan. At one of our briefings, the President asked who would succeed Noriega as strongman and head of the Panama National Guard, as its army was then called, if he agreed to leave. Shultz had known the question was coming and had asked me to be sure I knew the answer.

RELATED: Elliott Abrams : There's One Rule for Israel, Another for Everyone Else

So, consulting with colleagues at State and CIA, I knew who would likely succeed Noriega and knew a good deal about him. He was Col. Marcos Justines, if my memory is correct. When the president asked the question, that's the answer I gave.

President Reagan then said, "Well, is he another drug dealer, just like Noriega?" Because I knew the file, I had the satisfaction of answering the president: "No, no, he does not appear to be involved with drugs at all. He is in charge of prostitution."

This elicited a sardonic smile from the president. Such were the choices we faced at the time in Panama.

There are lessons in our dealings with Noriega, in my view. For one, we were able to offer Noriega the deal he did not take—you leave and we quash the indictment, and you can go find refuge someplace and enjoy your money—just as we had done in Haiti. There in 1985 we had successfully gotten Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier out.

Reagan also got Ferdinand Marcos to leave power in the Philippines and go into exile, in 1986.

In all these cases, the negotiations would likely have been impossible had there been an International Criminal Court (ICC). If there had been, these dictators would have held on tight, as Noriega actually did. More repression and violence would have been the result.

The ICC is meant to bring justice, but one should be aware of the possible cost: it persuades tyrants that leaving power means life in prison or death, and that makes it much harder to get them out of power.

Another lesson is about principle and foreign policy. Relations between Noriega and the United States began deteriorating in 1986, due to his violent and illegal actions (which ranged from drug trafficking to stealing elections to murder). It was folly to think he would reform or stop doing what he was doing.

Ultimately, change required that he leave power. That might well have been achieved without an invasion (which cost 23 American and 150 Panamanian lives), had American pressure been stronger earlier (for example, by supporting the coup against Noriega that failed earlier in 1989).

The lesson is that dealing with such dictators is a dirty game—especially when they are on "our side" rather than that of hostile powers like Russia or China.

Of course, it cannot be avoided, but we should avoid deluding ourselves about the nature of such regimes and such men. There are always practical arguments— realpolitik —for looking away, failing to condemn, or failing to act.

But the invasion of Panama in 1989 was proof that often realpolitik is simply not realistic. A principled foreign policy is often the most realistic one as well.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.