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Why we invaded Panama

Posted on December 31st, 2014 in War by Robert Miller

U.S. invasion of Panama, December-January 1989-1990

Twenty five years ago this month we invaded Panama for reasons that I really never understood. The invasion took place early in the morning, December 20, 1989 under the Presidency of George H.W. Bush, who launched Operation Just Cause, sending tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft into Panama to execute a warrant of arrest against its leader, Manuel Noriega, on charges of drug trafficking. Noriega went into hiding but turned himself in on January 3 and was officially extradited to the United States where he served sequential prison sentences in America, France and is now imprisoned in Panama. The invading troops initially secured all the important strategic installations, including the main airport in Panama City and various military bases and ports.  As soon as Noriega was extradited the invasion stopped and the troops came home. Perhaps it was the extremely brief duration of the conflict that prevented us from getting our heads around it. Nevertheless, several things perplexed me: for one Noriega was on the CIA payroll and it hardly seemed necessary to invade a country just to capture one person, particularly since he had been paid by the CIA. And why the sudden turnaround?

The invasion was costly: 20 U.S. soldiers died and as many as several thousand Panamanians might have died though these numbers are in dispute, since our government didn’t tabulate the deaths that came out of our bombing of El Chorrillo, a poor barrio that was bombed indiscriminately because our invaders thought Noriega received strong support from that community. And, since WW II that’s the way we go to war—indiscriminate bombing—shock and awe! Grassroots human-rights organizations claimed thousands of civilians were killed and tens of thousands displaced by our brief invasion. Civilians were given no notice while the bombing destroyed 4000 homes. Cobra and Apache helicopters reined down incendiary devices that immediately set fire to the mostly wooden homes in the barrio. Some residents referred to the mayhem as “Guernica” or “little Hiroshima.” After the hostilities ended, bulldozers were brought in, mass graves were carved out and the dead were buried in them.

What was also very odd about the invasion is that the Berlin Wall had just fallen on November 9, 1989 and the invasion of the 1st Gulf War would take place on January 17, 1991—hardly time to catch your breathe. As it turns out the fall of the Berlin wall may have had something to do with our invasion of Panama.

Greg Grandin, writing in TomDispatch has arrived at an explanation that seems to satisfy a number troubling features about the Panama invasion. First, operation Just Cause was neither sanctioned by the UN or the OAS (Organization of American States). It was done as though the approval from either of these sanctioning bodies didn’t matter. [From Greg Grandin’s article]:

  • The campaign to capture Noriega, however, didn’t start with such grand ambitions. For years, as Saddam Hussein had been Washington’s man in Iraq, so Noriega was a CIA asset and Washington ally in Panama.  He was a key player in the shadowy network of anti-communists, tyrants, and drug runners that made up what would become Iran-Contra. That, in case you’ve forgotten, was a conspiracy involving President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council to sell high-tech missiles to the Ayatollahs in Iran and then divert their payments to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua in order to destabilize the Sandinista government there. Noriega’s usefulness to Washington came to an end in 1986, after journalist Seymour Hersh published an investigation in the New York Times linking him to drug trafficking. It turned out that the Panamanian autocrat had been working both sides. He was “our man,” but apparently was also passing on intelligence about us to Cuba.
  • Referring to the process by which Noriega, in less than a year, would become America’s most wanted autocrat, Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said: “I can’t really describe the course of events that led us this way… Noriega, was he running drugs and stuff? Sure, but so were a lot of other people. Was he thumbing his nose at the United States? Yeah, yeah.”
  • What changed everything was the fall of the Berlin Wall just over a month before the invasion. Paradoxically, as the Soviet Union’s influence in its backyard (eastern Europe) unraveled, it left Washington with more room to maneuver in its backyard (Latin America). The collapse of Soviet-style Communism also gave the White House an opportunity to go on the ideological and moral offense. And at that moment, the invasion of Panama happened to stand at the head of the line.
  • As with most military actions, the invaders had a number of justifications to offer, but at that moment the goal of installing a “democratic” regime in power suddenly flipped to the top of the list. In adopting that rationale for making war, Washington was in effect radically revising the terms of international diplomacy. At the heart of its argument was the idea that democracy (as defined by the Bush administration) trumped the principle of national sovereignty.
  • Latin American nations immediately recognized the threat. After all, according to historian John Coatsworth, the U.S. overthrew 41 governments in Latin America between 1898 and 1994, and many of those regime changes were ostensibly carried out, as Woodrow Wilson once put it in reference to Mexico, to teach Latin Americans “to elect good men.” Their resistance only gave Bush’s ambassador to the OAS, Luigi Einaudi, a chance to up the ethical ante. He quickly and explicitly tied the assault on Panama to the wave of democracy movements then sweeping Eastern Europe. “Today we are… living in historic times,” he lectured his fellow OAS delegates, two days after the invasion, “a time when a great principle is spreading across the world like wildfire. That principle, as we all know, is the revolutionary idea that people, not governments, are sovereign.””
  • Einaudi’s remarks hit on all the points that would become so familiar early in the next century in George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”: the idea that democracy, as defined by Washington, was a universal value; that “history” represented a movement toward the fulfillment of that value; and that any nation or person who stood in the path of such fulfillment would be swept away.

Essentially, the Presidency of George H.W. Bush established the principal that the United States could violate, with impunity, the concept of national sovereignty in order to establish democratic countries (countries that would prove to be compliant with our “values”) and that laid open the pathway for his son, George W. Bush to invade Iraq and Afghanistan with impunity and complete disregard for national sovereignty. So as it stands now, the United States is no longer bound by issues national sovereignty, giving us one less thing to worry about when we decide to go to war. George’s father was just as sinister and flippant about national sovereignty as his son would later prove to be.



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Amazing Images From GRACE

Posted on December 28th, 2014 in Climage Change,Science by Robert Miller
Earth surface gravity conditions measure with the GRACE satellite system

regional Earth surface gravity conditions measure with the GRACE satellite system

GRACE stands for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, a joint U.S.-German satellite mission that monitors variations of gravity and remaps the Earth’s gravitational field every thirty days. Because short-term changes in gravity are primarily related to fluctuations in ground water, the measurements provided by GRACE are largely accounted for by changes in ground water and not much else. It makes sense that the more groundwater in a state or region, the greater will be the gravitational field in that area because it translates into a state of increased mass. But it was not until the GRACE satellites were launched in 2002 that we had a system capable measuring small changes in the Earth’s gravitational field. Seasonal variations in the Earth’s gravity field reflect temporal exchange between the land, the ocean and the atmosphere. Variations in the annual gravitational field range from 10 to 100 parts per million (variation from the mean). Detailed data on the water cycles are an increasingly important parameter for water management strategies as news about drought conditions is often on the front pages of our newspapers. The GRACE system consists of two satellites each of which is equipped with an identical array of measurement devices; communication between the two satellites provides knowledge of the change in gravity. As the lead satellite experiences an increase in the gravitational field it will speed up and get slightly ahead of the following satellite. Likewise a decrease in the gravitational field will slow the lead satellite down and bring the two closer together. The changes in distance between the satellites are so minute—about one-tenth the width of a human hair—that they are undetectable by the human eye. GRACE measures these changes using an instrument that generates pulses of microwave energy—a highly energetic form of electromagnetic radiation—that bounces back and forth between the two satellites. The distance between the satellites is determined by the time a microwave pulse takes to travel from one satellite to the other and back.

GRACE data is receiving increased public attention because of the drought conditions in the U.S., largely confined to the Southwest. Suddenly GRACE at the dinner table has more than one meaning.

California water loss measured by GRACE

California water loss measured by GRACE. Image from L.A. Times

The accompanying figure on the left shows ground water changes for the state of California and nearby regions of the Southwest in June 2002, June 2008 and June 2014. The color coding is green for moist and red for depleted ground water. These are truly astonishing changes in hydrology for the state. Although measurements of this type have been achieved before GRACE, the new system provides far greater accuracy and improved spatial resolution when compared to previous measurement strategies. GRACE can remap the gravitation variations for every region of the globe within 30 days.

The two GRACE satellites orbit at ~500 km with the separation of the two satellites at ~220 km;  GRACE has amazing sensitivity. In the map below which shows the change in ground water between 2003 and 2012 illustrates the detection of 3 cm/year and is color coded with red being the most extreme drought condition. As illustrated, you can see ground water losses in California’s Central Valley (1; a bread basket for America); the Southern High Plains Aquifer (2); the Houston area (3); other regions of drought include Alabama (4) and the midAtlantic states (5). Regions where ground water increased includes the Upper Missouri River basin (6).

Between 2003 and 2012, GRACE data show water losses in agricultural regions such as California's Central Valley (1) (?1.5 ± 0.1 cm/year) and the Southern High Plains Aquifer (2) (?2.5 ± 0.2 cm/year), caused by overreliance on groundwater to supply irrigation water. Regions where groundwater is being depleted as a result of prolonged drought include Houston (3) (?2.3 ± 0.6 cm/year), Alabama (4) (?2.1 ± 0.8 cm/year), and the Mid-Atlantic states (5) (?1.8 ± 0.6 cm/year). Water storage is increasing in the flood-prone Upper Missouri River basin (6) (2.5 ± 0.2 cm/year). See fig. S1 for monthly time series for all hot spots. Data from (15) and from GRACE data release CSR RL05.

Between 2003 and 2012, GRACE data show water losses in agricultural regions such as California’s Central Valley (1) (?1.5 ± 0.1 cm/year) and the Southern High Plains Aquifer (2) (?2.5 ± 0.2 cm/year), caused by over reliance on groundwater to supply irrigation water. Regions where groundwater is being depleted as a result of prolonged drought include Houston (3) (?2.3 ± 0.6 cm/year), Alabama (4) (?2.1 ± 0.8 cm/year), and the Mid-Atlantic states (5) (?1.8 ± 0.6 cm/year). Water storage is increasing in the flood-prone Upper Missouri River basin (6) (2.5 ± 0.2 cm/year). See fig. S1 for monthly time series for all hot spots. Data from (15) and from GRACE data release CSR RL05.  Image taken from Science Paper by James S. Famiglietti and Matthew Rodell “Water in Balance,” Science V 340, 2013.















One can begin to appreciate the problem for farmers in California—their income may well be determined by the nature with which California solves its water problems, like today! In the NYT a story on California water shortages are described in relationship to almond farming. California provides 80% of the world’s supply of almonds and almond farming brings in $11 billion annually into the state of California; yet the stability of almond farming is now very much at risk and many farmers are beginning to remove some of their almond trees for lack of water.

In case you missed it, global climate change is here already!


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Climate Accord Reached in Lima, Peru

Posted on December 14th, 2014 in Climage Change,Environment by Robert Miller
Surface Greenland Ice Flowing into a Moulin

Surface Greenland Ice Flowing into a Moulin

The United Nations has been trying for twenty years to formulate a policy that everyone could agree to and that objective was finally reached this week at the climate summit meeting in Lima, Peru. The new agreement represents a type of accord not seen in any other climate summit meeting in that all nations will strive to reduce greenhouse gases. Unfortunately the goal was to establish a reduction in greenhouse gases that would prevent the planet from reaching 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit and this agreement falls far short of that objective by about half. Should this agreement be endorsed at the meeting next year in Paris, the planet will still be imperiled by greenhouse gas emissions and it is not clear how we will achieve more meaningful reductions. But, it is a good start. The agreement was reached by the 196 countries that attended the meeting; it calls for every country  to advance their own plans to reduce carbon emissions over the next six months. Each of these plans will be published on the United Nations website.

Climate scientists tell us that if we can avoid the 3.6 degree Fahrenheit ceiling we can prevent the planet from reaching a tipping point beyond which the planet will be unpredictably imperiled. Earlier this year the level of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 400 ppm, a point at which some climatologists claim matched the CO2 level when the the polar ice gaps were formed. Melting of the polar ice caps and the Greenland ice mass could raise the sea level by about 270 feet.

I listened to Secretary of State Kerry speak at the climate summit in Peru and I was almost shocked by his message; it was by far the most forceful statement endorsing a list of issues that must be addressed in a timely manner. I do not believe I have heard anyone from the Obama administration make a more impassioned statement in support of the climate emergency we face today and for a long time well into the future. Delegates at the meeting emphasized that what triggered the success of this summit was created when China and the United States jointly agreed to reduce the carbon emissions last month in Beijing , jointly declared by President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China. China and the US are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet. Go Obama and Xi Jinping!

The NYT has a breaking story today which you can view here.


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