12/20 – Nifty Package

American troops and Panamanian women in 1989. (OSW)

On this day in 1989, US military forces invaded Panama, a small country linking Central and South America. Titled Operation Just Cause (or, according to many soldiers who took part in the operation, “Just ’cause”), the invasion was justified by US command as a necessity for protecting American students studying on the island who were apparently threatened by the Panamanian military. As the main US forces landed, US Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) operators began hunting for Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega – arguably the most crucial part of the invasion. If all else failed, the SEALs absolutely had to succeed in their mission, codenamed Operation Nifty Package.

Tensions rose as SEALs stormed Patilla airport and began closing in on Noriega’s position. The Panamanian leader fled to the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See (an embassy of sorts for Vatican officials) and sought shelter within. SEALs surrounded the building; they were unable to enter due to the Holy See’s diplomatic status, so the Americans set up loudspeakers on the perimeter and blasted loud music and obnoxious noises at Noriega and Monsignor Laboa, the papal official sheltering him. After 10 days of deafening noise, Noriega decided to surrender; although many credit the Americans’ deafening noise with psychologically defeating Noriega, Laboa insisted he alone convinced the Panamanian leader to give in, claiming that he was simply “better at psychology” than Noriega.

The operation – just one example in a long list of strange US military operational codenames, like Eager Glacier and Steadfast Jazz – was an important part of a larger American strategy to assert its military dominance and maintain order within its sphere of influence after the disastrous Cold War adventure known as the Vietnam War. Although the invasion was labeled a success, it led many to question America’s role as a global super-cop – especially if its tactics involved psychologically destroying its enemies with over 200 hours of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle”.

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