Canal no longer crucial to U.S. national security
By Tom Carter
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
FORT CLAYTON, Panama
It was military need that prompted the United States to begin
building the Panama Canal in 1903. But that need no longer
exists, according to the men and women responsible for
defending the United States at home and abroad.
The national security interest kept U.S. troops on the
ground in Panama for almost 100 years. But less than a year
before the canal is due to be handed over to Panama at noon
on Dec. 31, American military officials have concluded that
changes in the world --ranging from new technology to the end
of the Cold War -- mean it is no longer needed to protect the
American way of life.
"There is nothing absolutely vital here in Panama in terms of
regional or geographical importance," said Lt. Col. Byron
Conover, spokesman for U.S. Army South. "It is disappointing
that we lose the ability to launch certain kinds of missions out of
here, but from a military perspective, there is nothing vital
The single irreplaceable base in Panama is the Jungle
Operations Training Battalion (JOTB) at Fort Sherman.
Without exception, all the officers and enlisted men interviewed
expressed regret at losing this base -- but none said it was vital.
"When it comes to making the hard decisions of where to
spend the money on a scale of must have and good to have,
we don't have to have jungle training. It is not a must," said
Col. Tom Heaney, JOTB commander.
Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former head of the U.S. Southern
Command when it was stationed in Panama and currently the
U.S. drug czar, agreed.
"Unequivocally I state that it is too bad that the United
States did not forge a partnership with Panama that would have
lasted another 50 years -- with a continued U.S. military
presence," he said. But, "We don't have vital national security
interests in Panama."
In an hour-long conversation in Washington, Gen.
McCaffrey listed dozens of reasons why it would have been
better for Panama and the United States to keep a military
presence here. Among the missions better based in Panama, he
listed drug counteroperations, search and rescue work and
humanitarian aid such as the current mission to hurricane
victims in Nicaragua and Honduras.
He also suggested that Panama is being undermined by
All these issues are important, he said, but not vital to the
survival of the United States. He used words like "significant
loss," "regret," "a shame" and "lost opportunity" to describe his
feelings about the U.S. military drawdown in Panama.
An enlisted soldier who asked not to be identified put it
"The canal has been useful over the years, but today it is not
something Americans need to die for," he said.
Throughout the past 100 years, Panama has been a vital
link between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The need
became evident during the Spanish American War, when it
took the warship USS Oregon eight weeks to sail around
South America to reach Cuba. Newspapers ran daily accounts
of the ship's progress alongside front-page stories on the war.
When Rough Riding Teddy Roosevelt, who fought in Cuba,
became president in 1901, he defined American control of the
Pacific and Atlantic as paramount, and a canal was vital for that
During World Wars I and II, the military interest in keeping
the canal open was obvious, and Japanese and German
submarine crews searched for ways to sabotage it. As recently
as the war in Vietnam, naval vessels made important use of the
Even after the canal reverts to Panama, U.S. military ships
will be able to pass through ahead of other shipping.
The "drawdown," as it it called in military circles, is well
advanced. There are just 4,500 American men and women in
uniform here today, down from 13,000 in 1989, and more are
leaving all the time.
"Most families will not leave until the summer, when the
schools close," said Col. Dave Hunt, director of treaty
implementation and the man responsible for closing up shop.
Col. Hunt said that of an estimated $3.5 billion to $4 billion
in assets the U.S. government is turning over to Panama, about
$1.5 billion has been transferred --including 5,000 buildings
and 29,000 acres of land.
Besides moving the military, their families and belongings --
including automobiles and some 3,000 pets -- Col. Hunt has to
get some 7,000 pieces of military equipment out of Panama.
"On 31 December 1999, anything left behind will become
the property of Panama," he said.
The departure means the United States will lose bases and
assets that have been constantly used for drug interdiction,
humanitarian aid and search-and-rescue operations.
"You don't have to be a genius to figure out that Panama is
closer for counterdrug operations [than the United States],"
said Col. Conover.
Howard Air Force Base, which conducts many of the
3,000 interdiction flights that originate in Panama each year,
will close May 1. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen was
in Colombia last month, in part to seek an agreement to
transfer some of those flights to Colombian airfields.
But drug interdiction has never been the military's primary
mission. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several
military men said their job is to defend the country, not police
drug trafficking. Much the same could be said about
"We will salute and do it. It is our job to follow orders, but
if it is not directly related to military preparedness and combat
readiness, we'd rather be doing something else," said one
The military resources now based in Panama will be
redeployed throughout the Caribbean region.
U.S. Army South headquarters, now at Fort Clayton
outside Panama City, will move to San Juan, Puerto Rico,
along with small-boat training. "Air assets" are being moved to
an air base at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. The 24th Air Lift
Wing of Howard Air Base is being deactivated. The Southern
Command (Southcom) headquarters moved to Miami in
A study is under way to determine whether the Joint
Interagency Task Force South -- which specializes in drug
interdiction -- should combine with a sister agency now based
in Key West, Fla.
Some capabilities will move to Soto Cano, in Honduras, an
airfield that was used in support of Contra rebels in Nicaragua
during the 1980s, but had been little used until the Hurricane
Some 3,000 drug surveillance flights a year were flown out
of Panama. Those will now be scaled back and conducted out
of the United States or Colombia if that country agrees.
"It will all be done without missing a day of work. There will
be no letdown in operations efficiency," said Raul Duany,
public affairs officer for SouthCom in Miami.
Several conservative organizations in the United States
raised the alarm, not to mention funds, after the Panamanian
government sold two port facilities, one at each end of the
canal, to the Hong Kong-based shipping giant Hutchinson Port
These groups are concerned because the chairman of the
company, Li Ka-shing, has close ties to the communist
leadership in Beijing. They worry that China, through this
proxy, will control both ends of the canal.
But the U.S. military dismisses the threat.
"The United States is the dominant economic, political and
military power in the region, period," said Gen. McCaffrey.
"That is unaffected by whether some Chinese firm has access
rights or not. I do not see this as a national security issue."
Others see things differently.
Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee last summer that the Chinese presence
constituted a serious threat.
"All the ports in the Panama Canal are of strategic
importance," said Adm. Moorer. "We are talking about the
control of a strategic part of the world in our hemisphere,
shortly to be controlled by the largest country on Earth,
In the introduction to "Death Knell of the Panama Canal?"
by G. Russell Evans, a book lamenting the loss of the canal,
Adm. Moorer wrote: "I am astounded when I hear supposedly
intelligent officers and officials state the canal no longer has any
However, a report prepared for Sen. Jesse Helms,
chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
concluded that the threat from Hutchinson Port Holdings was
Former Helms staffer Gina Marie Hatheway wrote in May
1997 that she had conducted "extensive discussions" with U.S.
and Panamanian government officials.
"All those interviewed for this report state the HPH's
development of the two ports does not translate into a direct
national security threat to the Panama Canal," she wrote.
Some critics still worry about the impact on the Pentagon's
goal of being able to fight wars in two parts of the world at the
same time. What if, for example, one war erupted in the
Pacific, another in the Atlantic, and HPH blocked the canal by
scuttling a ship in midchannel.
"This is way above my pay grade," said one officer who
asked not to be identified. "But we have a two-ocean navy,
one on each side of the canal, and the canal is still neutral by
treaty. If anyone threatens that, we could be back here in 24
While virtually every U.S. officer in Panama said he will
regret the loss of the jungle training facility at Fort Sherman,
several said they were more concerned about leftist rebels in
Colombia, drug trafficking and money laundering in Panama
and a volatile political situation in Venezuela that could affect oil
"I love Panama, and I have some concerns about the future
of the country, but right now most of my focus is on moving
out," said Col. Conover.
"Contrary to what a lot of Panamanians think, we don't sit
around each night trying to figure out how we can stay here.
Next year, we will be drawn down and stood up in Puerto
Rico, and Panama will just be another country among 32 in our
area of responsibility in the Caribbean Basin."