Noriega's Revenge

Twenty years after the U.S. invasion of Panama, America's ambassador to the United Nations at the time considers it an important stepping stone to the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.

On Dec. 20, 1989, nearly 30,000 U.S. troops invaded Panama and captured the country's military dictator, Gen. Manuel Noriega. The invasion lasted just over a month, and the U.S. military suffered just 23 casualties. Thomas Pickering was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the conflict, and a key advisor to President George H.W. Bush as the United States solidified its position in Central America and ushered in a new age of interventionism in the post-Cold War era. For Pickering, however, the conflict now has a different legacy: He believes that the invasion of Panama helped lead America into the Iraq war.

The brief and relatively bloodless war in Panama convinced Americans that the use of force could easily solve their problems overseas -- and, what's more, that the United States could largely accomplish this on its own. The United States did not seek international approval before invading Panama, as it did before the first Gulf War. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, Pickering noted that before the 1990 invasion of Iraq, "[W]e undertook quite a remarkable series of activities inside the Security Council," including resolutions that imposed economic sanctions on the country and, after the war, the establishment of a peacekeeping force to protect the Kurds.

Multilateralism came with costs, however. In their joint memoir, A World Transformed, Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, specifically cited the limits of the U.N. mandate to liberate Kuwait as a primary reason they didn't topple Saddam Hussein in 1990. But Panama showed what could be done when the United States acted alone. Fewer allies meant fewer restrictions. This was a lesson too well-learned -- as the 2003 invasion of Iraq proved.

Panama had a far deeper imprint on U.S. policymakers than on the public. "Having used force in Panama, and in Grenada in 1983, there was a propensity in Washington to think that force could provide a result more rapidly, more effectively, more surgically than diplomacy," Pickering said.

Indeed, from the perspective of the United States, the Panama invasion seemed to offer tantalizing results. "U.S. interests were advanced and protected," Pickering argued. The invasion succeeded in securing the Panama Canal, which was subsequently returned to Panama in 2000. "The canal's operation -- which is our primary strategic interest in Panama -- is still ongoing, and now the Panamanians are enlarging the canal," he said. The invasion also removed a brutal dictator, albeit one the United States had supported for many years, Pickering says -- another parallel with the regime of Saddam Hussein. And it "allowed for a change in government that was rocky, but not totally completely feckless or failing," demonstrating the benefits of U.S. power.

The brilliant success of the Panama invasion contributed to a feeling of American invincibility. Influential conservative commentators repeatedly cited its success as a reason to invade Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. "The Falklands, Panama, Serbia, and the Middle East all demonstrate the power of legitimate governments over dictatorships," wrote Victor Davis Hanson, explaining how the same would be the case with Iraq. In his influential essay "Power and Weakness," Robert Kagan argued that "with the check of Soviet power removed, the United States was free to intervene practically wherever and whenever it chose -- a fact reflected in the proliferation of overseas military interventions that began during the first Bush administration with the invasion of Panama in 1989." Finally, George Will praised the invasion as "punctuat[ing] a decade of recovery of national purposefulness and a year of militant democracy."

America's faith in its ability to solve the world's problems by military force alone, which existed on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, grew largely out of the U.S. experience in Panama. The invasion's success meant "the notion that the international community had to be engaged ... was ignored," Pickering said.

Like Panama, Iraq was a war of choice. The light American footprint that had achieved results in the small Central American country convinced figures such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the same strategy would work in Iraq. Furthermore, the ability of the United States to depose Noriega and then swiftly withdraw from Panama contributed to the belief that nation-building was unnecessary in Iraq. "Iraq in 2003 was all of that shortsightedness in spades," concluded Pickering. "After all, the defense secretary said we didn't want anybody else's help, we didn't need anybody's help -- we were going to do it all ourselves."

That sounds just like the strategy that worked in Panama, 20 years ago.



The $2 Trillion Man

How Obama saved Brand America.

As 2009 winds down, the pundits are already beginning to tally what Barack Obama has achieved during his first year in office. Even his more well-intentioned detractors contend that, though he may have made a high-profile speech or two, the new U.S. president can boast of few concrete achievements in foreign policy. Obama himself accepted the Nobel Peace Prize as a "call to action," rather than a reward for his work, and gave himself only a "B+" grade during his recent interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Yet in one sense, Obama achieved more in the first 11 months of his presidency than his predecessor managed to in eight years. My research clearly shows that he has begun to restore America's good name, an intangible asset with highly tangible (read: lucrative) consequences. As head of state, Obama has boosted the value of "Brand America" by just over $2 trillion, up from $9.7 trillion in 2008 to $11.8 trillion this year. That means U.S. goods, services, people, and even the country's landscape are about 20 percent more enticing to the global market than they were in 2008.

I know this because I track the value of countries' brand images closely from year to year. Since 2005, my Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index (NBI) has regularly measured the international perceptions of 50 countries by polling between 20,000 and 40,000 people in 20 to 40 countries. We have asked them to detail their perceptions of other countries' human rights records, education systems, cultural lives, products, sporting prowess, and even kindness to strangers.

I originally launched the NBI because public perceptions of countries are critically important to their prosperity in a globalized world. What people believe about other places may be biased, utterly misconceived, weirdly distorted, unfairly negative, undeservedly positive, outdated, and ludicrously simplified. But it matters. Countries with a powerful, positive image find it easier to attract tourists, investors, donors, talent, respect, and the attention of international media and foreign governments. They are more successful in exporting their products, services, ideas, culture, and people to the world. Countries with weak or negative images, by contrast, find these transactions more difficult and expensive. None of this was captured by GDP, economic productivity, or any host of other economic measures -- a hole that the index was meant to fill.

Value of Brand America (in trillions of dollars)

But I also wanted to test my hypothesis that national images are very stable. Country images are not like public opinion, which can fluctuate literally from day to day. People are reluctant to change their minds about other countries, partly because they don't think about them very often or very deeply, and partly because countries' images are deeply ingrained in the culture of the population that holds them. Chinese views of Japan, for example, are really part of the Chinese culture, and vice versa.

Indeed, hardly any country's image has altered more than 1 or 2 percent since the NBI was launched. Perceptions about a given place remained more or less constant even as it was hit by political and economic upheaval, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. Nor did the countless, ruinously expensive publicity campaigns optimistically designed to "brand" countries push up any ratings for the better.

There have been just two exceptions to this remarkable inertia: Denmark in 2006 and the United States today.

Following the publication in 2006 of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, Denmark's image collapsed in Muslim countries in the survey. In Egypt, for example, Denmark had typically been ranked around 15th in most categories, with a high ranking of seventh for its governance. Following the cartoons' publication, both its governance and overall rankings dropped to 35th out of the 39 countries then included in the study. It has still not recovered its prestige today. The reason was clear: Unlike most major news events that take place in other countries, which won't strike people as especially relevant and consequently won't affect their beliefs about that country, the cartoons were personal. Many Muslims felt that "Denmark" had deliberately reached out to offend them, and their views of that country changed as a result.

The second exception occurred this year and was even more dramatic. The United States, which had languished around seventh place in my index since 2005, shot up to first place, and not just in the perceptions of one or two countries. For a sample representing some 60 percent of the world's population and 77 percent of its economy, America is suddenly the most admired country on Earth.

First is, I believe, the United States' natural position. It happens that since 2005 (and no doubt before), a dark phase in America's international relations had held it in an unnaturally low spot on the list. Obama's election "released" the country, returning it to its usual position as the world's most admired country. (Interestingly, since the survey was launched, the United States has never departed from first place in the eyes of the Muslim respondents surveyed).

Closer analysis of the data shows that much of the boost comes from improved international opinion of the American people themselves. After the re-election of George W. Bush to a second term, I began to record falling scores not just for U.S. foreign policy but also for U.S. people, culture, products, and even -- by a delightfully illogical extension -- the U.S. landscape. Now, the world appears to have absolved Americans of any perceived sin, having elected the "right" president. Even the country's rolling hills and city skylines, it seems, are fully restored to their former grandeur in the eyes of the world.

Redemption of the brand means more than just the warm and fuzzy feeling one gets when thinking about the United States. By combining the NBI data with a range of economic and industrial statistics, it is possible to hazard a brand valuation for a country, much as corporations value their brands. Working with Brand Finance, a consultancy that specializes in valuing the intangible assets of corporations, we estimate that the value of "Brand America" has jumped from $9.7 trillion in 2008 to $11.8 trillion today. Even more remarkably, that increase comes even as the global recession has seen U.S. GDP growth decline 2.3 percentage points over the last year. That number is value that Obama has added to the U.S. economy simply by taking office and making the right speeches.

So to those who say Obama has achieved little, my research suggests otherwise. His mere presence has begun to restore the United States to a position of respect and credibility -- and consequently, of influence -- that no amount of political, economic, or military might could muster. And it is an absolutely necessary achievement if Washington is to wield any moral authority in the world. In at least one of his responsibilities as head of state, the sacred responsibility of upholding the good name of his country, Obama has had a pretty good first year.