It happened today - December 31, 2015
It wasn’t meant to be that way. To advocates of returning control of the canal to Panama under Jimmy Carter, it was meant to show new American humility and respect toward the Third World and undercut the appeal of Soviet and other radicalism.
It would have been nice if they had a Plan B given how poorly that one typically works, including under Barack Obama. It strikes me in my less kindly moments that to many leftists, humiliating America abroad is pretty much an end in itself, rationalized with promises they don’t take seriously enough to care if they aren’t fulfilled.
On the other hand, the dire predictions of opponents of the treaty haven’t come true either. Whatever may be happening to America’s geopolitical position, it hasn’t been undermined by difficulties shifting military assets between the Atlantic and Pacific, the key rationale for the canal in the first place. (In the 1890s, the much weaker U.S. navy was badly handicapped by having to shuffle its feeble ships around Cape Horn, a trip the canal reduced by nearly 8,000 miles; it obviously mattered in the Second World War also.)
Nor have the Panamanian authorities exploited their supposed control of the canal to impede world trade. Instead, they’re desperately trying to expand it to accommodate today’s unreasonably huge cargo ships.
I think “supposed control” is the key. It has doubtless been made absolutely clear to the Panamanians that any attempt to close the canal, especially in a crisis, would be regarded by the United States as a blow at its vital interests and would result in immediate and probably permanent seizure of the canal.
Even the distant threat of interference in American use of the canal prompted such public outrage, when the treaty was before the U.S. Senate in 1978, that of 20 senators up for reelection who supported it, six chose not to run again and seven were defeated. Two years later, another 11 pro-canal treaty senators bit the ballot dust. (Another of Jimmy Carter’s gifts to his own party, by the way.)
So yes, the canal is in Panamanian hands. But don’t roll up the sleeves very far or I think you’ll find a big Semper Fi tattoo.