We were not into the 1980s three months when the debacle of Desert One - an eight-helicopter intervention in a huge nation - which, like the embassay hostages the helicopters were sent for, seemed a summation of national decline into futility. 1980 was dominated by a presidential election that was in part a referendum on how the nation should think about its goodness and usefulness in its third century.
This is the third use of force by a NATO nation in this hemisphere in this decade: Before Grenada and Panama, there was the Falklands war. Because of American interventions in this decade, this hemisphere has two more democracies - Grenada and Panama - than it would have if America husbanded its power differently, two more than would exist if recent presidential elections had produced different results.
The President gave a dry, nicely understated summation of his catalog of Noriega's offenses: "That was enough." However, what the President said, although sufficient for the moment when he said it, is not, in the context of American history, quite enough. There is a richer, an unapologetically nationalistic, case to be made.
Outrages against Americans, caused by Noriega's stirring of the situation to the point of declaring a state of war, were intolerable because, among other reasons, the clock continues to run on the schedule for transferring control of the canal. Another stage is reached Jan. 1. The President faced a domestic storm and a diplomatic conundrum in trying to comply with treaty obligations without ratifying the legitimacy of an outlaw regime.
The graphic record of 1989, so replete with pictures of freedom ascendant, includes pictures of Noriega's savagery in the streets against the men who beat him in an election. Those pictures were worth six words: Panama's regime is devoid of legitimacy.
America's national interests, narrowly construed, may not conclusively justify this intervention. That is an argument not against the intervention but against the narrow construing of national interests.
As was the case regarding Grenada, the need to protect American lives has been given as a sufficient reason for intervention. The presence in Panama of many Americans in connection with important national assets (the military's Southern Command, the canal) was perhaps a politically necessary justification for intervention. But American lives and assets might have been protectable by measures short of intervention. And it is certain that bringing Noriega to American justice on drug charges is no serious reason for mounting a major military operation.
However, a constant of America's national character, and a component of American patriotism, has been a messianic impulse, sometimes mild, sometimes not. It rises from the belief that national identity is bound up with acceptance of a responsibility to further democracy.
There always have been many Americans who reject that premise, who say America has no responsibility toward democracy abroad beyond (in John Adams' words) wishing it well. But an American majority has always thought otherwise, and America's oldest argument is about the circumstances in which American power should be employed on behalf of American values.
By stressing, among the reasons for intervention, the restoration of democracy, the President put himself squarely in a tradition with a distinguished pedigree. It holds that America's fundamental national interest is to be America, and the nation's identity (its sense of its self, its peculiar purposefulness) is inseparable from a commitment to the spread - not the aggressive universalization, but the civilized advancement - of the proposition to which we, unique among nations, are, as the greatest American said, dedicated.
That is why, although the President's reasons for the invasion are sufficient to justify it, the first reason he gave is the one that explains it: It was an act of neighborliness.