Canopy Family | Bob Cullen: Iraq and the Keel-billed Toucan

If you’re looking for a refuge from live television coverage of the war in Iraq, I’ve got a suggestion. It’s called the Canopy Tower Hotel, and it’s about half an hour’s drive from Panama City, Panama. On the third day of the Iraqi campaign, I awoke there, got my coffee, and watched the sun rise over the Pacific. Then I watched a pair of toucans preening in a tree. It is an excellent place from which not to watch a war.

I should back up a little bit. I was in Panama working on a story for a magazine. It will, when I write it, be about how the Panama Canal treaties, which the Senate ratified by a single vote 25 years ago, have worked out.

On my second day in Panama, the war began. I was in a hotel with CNN, so I watched whenever I was in my room. An old colleague from my AP days, CNN’s Walter Rodgers, was reporting from a Humvee careening across the desert. Walt sounded like he was being taken for the ride of his life.

Part of my assignment was to report on the potential for eco-tourism in Panama. So I turned off the TV and made my way to the Canopy Tower, which is in a national park the Panamanians created from a portion of the old Canal Zone and named “Soberania,” or Sovereignty.

To picture the Canopy Tower, imagine a corrugated metal cylinder, not unlike a garbage can, painted aqua. Imagine it fifty feet high and maybe forty feet in diameter. Imagine a big fiberglas soccer ball, painted yellow, perched atop the cylinder. Imagine all of it protruding from a hilltop in the rain forest. This is the Canopy Tower.

(If my descriptive powers haven’t created the image for you, here’s a link that might:

The hotel was an old American military radar installation before the U.S. stripped it hollow and left it to Panama in 1995. Its last purpose was tracking drug flights from Colombia. After the American military pulled out, a Panamanian named Raul Arias de Para obtained a concession to operate the place and refurbished it for a few hundred thousand dollars. He built wedge-shaped guest rooms in the tower’s middle levels, enough to house maybe fifteen people. On its top level, beneath the empty radar dome, he created a comfortable living and dining room with lots of windows. A set of steel stairs leads from this area through a hatch to an open-air observation deck wedged under the soccer ball that gives you a 360-degree view of the jungle treetops (or rain forest canopy if you’re politically correct enough to know better than to use words like “jungle”).

From this deck, the hotel guests look at birds. Raul and his guests have spotted around 300 different species in the five years since the hotel opened. Some of them are spectacular. The toucans I saw (keel-billed toucans for those of you who know birds) are colored yellow, green, aqua, orange, and carmine red. And that’s just their beaks. There’s a little bird called the blue cotinga that is the blazing indigo color of a flame where the fire is hottest.

If there are no birds around, you can always look for ships in the canal, out in the middle distance. Ships, I can report, still chug through at a rate of 13,000 a year. The Red Chinese have not taken over the canal and the Panamanians have not let it degenerate into a mule trough, contrary to the predictions of many of our esteemed senators a quarter-century ago.

Raul thoughtfully decided against putting any television sets in his little hotel, so there was no way to tune into CNN and find out how close Walt had gotten to Baghdad. The only distracting noise was from a troop of howler monkeys somewhere in the jungle to the north.

Being ever alert to the potential employment of cliches, I found myself pondering the swords-into-plowshares implications of the setting. The only way the Canopy Tower could have brought swords and plowshares more forcefully to mind would have been if Raul had built it from an old ICBM instead of a radar tower.

I thought about Jimmy Carter, who has been a guest at the Canopy Tower and who signed the treaties back in 1977. The hotel, of course, would not exist without the treaties. The canal might still be running without the treaties, but only with a serious American military presence to guard it against Panamanians determined to reclaim the property, which we essentially grabbed from them and the Colombians in 1903. Without the treaties, the canal probably would not run as efficiently. The Panamanians have both fewer employees and fewer accidents than we did. By any objective measure I could think of, Panama was a place in which a thoughtful American would want to take his hat off to Jimmy Carter and thank him for his wisdom.

Thanks is something Carter rarely gets, though, at least not in his own country. After signing the treaties and expending a lot of political capital to win their ratification, he was run out of town by Ronald Reagan. Reagan, you may recall, had a simple policy about the canal: “We bought it. We paid for it. We ought to keep it.” (Fortunately, Reagan was smart enough, barely, to listen to people who told him Carter’s deal couldn’t be undone.) The careers of several senators were stalled or derailed because they supported the treaties.

In fact, right-wing political strategists in the United States will tell you that the fight over the canal treaties tipped the national political balance in their favor. It energized their supporters, helped their recruiting and to some degree made possible the election of Reagan and the Bushes. Boneheaded though it was, opposition to peace and compromise in Panama proved popular. Carter’s intelligent, conciliatory approach went over in America like The Singing Nun on The Man Show.

The painful fact is that despite our incessant rhetoric in praise of peace, most Americans like being a country that kicks butt a lot more than they like being a country that compromises to achieve peace. It doesn’t take much to whip most of us into a good war frenzy, any more than it took much to whip the Russians into enthusiasm for war in 1914 or the Germans in 1939. This belligerence is what is driving protestors into the streets around the world now. It’s not that the world doesn’t want Saddam taken out. It’s that the world doesn’t like the bellicosity and arrogance that causes us to be the ones to do it.

Of course, Americans are spoiled. We want our wars quick and easy. We don’t want higher taxes to pay for them, and we’re really happy if poor kids, rather than our own kids, can be enlisted to do the dangerous stuff. So there’s no telling what might happen to public opinion if this war doesn’t turn out to be the cakewalk we were promised.

But sitting in Panama watching the ships go by and the toucans flap their wings, I couldn’t avoid this conclusion: in George W. Bush and his Iraqi adventure, Americans are demonstrating again the truth of Jefferson’s observation that a people get the government they deserve. We have been presented with alternatives to our present foreign policy. We have spurned them.

Copyright © Bob Cullen (reprinted by permission)


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