Saturday, July 5, 2008

One Decent Action by Jesse Helms?

Given the fulmination against the late Jesse Helms' atrocious record, I thought I'd blow a contrarian note. It's in no way redeeming of the man; it stands out, not for being heroic, but for being insufficiently vile. Back in the late 1980s, Senators Helms and John Kerry were two of the loudest voices raising doubts about Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Indeed, Helms became an enormous thorn in Bush I's ass:

As the debate over Panama policy continues in the capital, President Bush and his aides still seem puzzled over how to manage their basic political problem: a fierce disagreement between the White House and Senator Jesse Helms. Mr. Helms, a North Carolina Republican, often finds himself alone in his crusades. But White House aides privately acknowledge that this time he has caused serious problems, setting the tone for many lawmakers who have foregone their usual impulse to close ranks behind the President at a time of foreign crisis.

''We find it perplexing,'' a White House official said. ''The President has campaigned for him. We work with Jesse. He still comes over to see Bush.''
If the charges of Noriega's consultant Jose I. Blandon are to be believed, the CIA may have passed intelligence on Sens. Kerry, Helms and Teddy Kennedy to the drug-trafficking dictator. What a wonderful way to run a democracy, huh?

Helms also pressured the administration to act during a pivotal episode of the Panama crisis. Panamanian Maj. Moises Giroldi appealed to the United States for assistance in overthrowing Noriega. The Bush Administration turned its back on Giroldi, whose forces subsequently launched a coup and seized Noriega for hours. Instead of killing Noriega, Giroldi offered to hand him over to the U.S. Armed Forces. They rebuffed him. Helms lashed out at the Bush White House for sitting on its hands.

Noriega's forces eventually came to his rescue; Giroldi and his compatriots were slaughtered. Referencing Buckley's Panama: The Whole Story, Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow details Giroldi's fate:
To emphasize his point, Noriega pulled out his pistol and shot one of the rebels in the face. Then he ordered a slow death for Giroldi. An autopsy later showed that before he was executed, Noriega's men shot off his elbows and kneecaps, broke one of his legs and one of his ribs, and cracked his skull open. (pp. 253-4)
At the time, the White House denied that it had even been contacted by the opposition forces. Helms called bullshit on that. History has subsequently proven Helms right.

Helms' motives on the Panama issue remain obscure. One plausible factor (included in the first WaPo story above) is that he was driven by his opposition to the Panama Canal treaties, which would sunder U.S. control of the passageway. Helms may also have been personally disgusted by the U.S. government's complicity with drug kingpin Noriega. Both factors may have been at play.

Again, not a redeeming incident. Helms gets kudos for opposing Noriega against his own government's dissuasion, even if his motives (perpetuating the War on Drugs, preserving American imperialism) were wanting. Still, it may be the closest that honest obit writers can get to an "attaboy".