As part of the growing War on Drugs that had been declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and redoubled by President George Bush, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was indicted on drug-trafficking charges and endangering American nationals in addition to his more obvious crime of suppressing democracy. Sparked by the shooting death of a US Marine at a roadblock on December 16, nine thousand US troops entered Panama in Operation Just Cause, joining the some 12,000 others that were already there as part of the defense of the jointly owned Panama Canal (set to revert to Panamanian control in the year 2000 under the Torrijos–Carter Treaties). Noriega’s pet army of the Panamanian Defense Forces was easily defeated with minimal resistance, except for a devious counterattack with an unassuming small freighter that rested in the Canal near the Gatun Locks.
While the fighting ended shortly after it had begun, Noriega found asylum in the Vatican anuncio and did not surrender until arrested by US Drug Enforcement agents on January 3. During this time, the US scrambled to polish its image. Polls sponsored by CBS and articles by the New York Times showed that Panamanians were pleased that the dictator had been overthrown and the properly elected Guillermo Endara sworn into office; even those who had suffered property damage or the loss of loved ones supported the US invasion by as much as 80 percent. Other news sources were not as friendly, giving accounts such as those from Paul Eisner of Newsday describing blacklists and “sapo” informers upon neighbors as well as the Miami Herald’s report of "Neighbors saw six U.S. truck loads bringing dozens of bodies to a mass grave” and a mother’s "voice rose over the crowd's silence: 'Damn the Americans.'"
International disapproval arose, made all the louder by the economic fallout of the damaged Canal. The Organization of American States and the European Parliament made formal protests, calling the move a violation of international law. As public criticism grew, more stories began to come out about Noriega’s past. Most recognized him as a money-launderer and drug-trafficker, but the story of his origins by CIA support became widespread. Noriega had been picked by the CIA as a potential block to fears of Central American communism in 1970, but was dropped from the payroll in 1977 after he had become mixed in drugs. Two years later, the Sandinista National Liberation Front came to power in Nicaragua, and Noriega was tapped again to keep communism from spreading and became dictator in 1983. Throughout the Reagan Administration, which came into its own problems with illegal activity in the Iran-Contra Affair, Noriega enjoyed American support as he rigged elections and was condemned by US Senate committee reviews of drug traffic. Upon word that Noriega may have been connected with Cuba and the Sandanistas, he was cut off by the US government. After his arrest in 1989, he would be sentenced in 1992 to federal prison for forty years.
President Bush raced to salvage his administration, citing his own experience with the CIA and admitting that certain intelligence activities were necessary to stop the spread of communism. With the Berlin Wall falling in August and the Soviet departure from Afghanistan earlier in February, he noted that American fears of international instability had been satiated and now was the time to “clean up the mess.” With new policies on cutting international aid from dictators and new CIA transparency, a wave of revolution watched over by UN and largely American forces came in several countries such as Nigeria with free elections. Most famous would be the removal of Saddam Hussein at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 after his invasion of Kuwait. The actions would give Bush a narrow election victory for a second term after successfully winning support in Maine and Colorado from Ross Perot’s dropping out of his campaign in July of 1992. The fall of the Soviet Union that December would be a further feather in Bush’s hat.
In reality, there was no strike against the Panama Canal. Although sometimes condemned, Operation Just Cause would remove one of many dictators established by CIA and US support as part of Cold War strategies.