WASHINGTON — With a range of military options on his desk, President Bush on Tuesday cited "massive irregularities" in the Panamanian elections and called on Manuel A. Noriega, the country's ruler, to "heed the call of the people" and turn over the country's government to the opposition.
The President's remarks further raised the stakes in the confrontation over the election, but neither he nor his aides indicated a growing consensus on a plan of action--military or otherwise--to strike back at a fraudulent declaration of victory for Noriega's candidate.
Bush's activities Tuesday included a meeting with former President Jimmy Carter, just back from Panama, where he had called the elections a "fraud."
Range of Military Options
Pentagon officials said that Bush has been presented with military responses, ranging from ordering military dependents in Panama City to move onto U.S. bases for their safety to mounting a full-scale invasion--a step seen as highly unlikely.
One notable option, a knowledgeable Pentagon official said, would be having U.S. special operations forces in Panama "detain" Noriega so that he could be "held accountable by his own government--the real one." The State Department briefly favored such a proposal during the Reagan Administration, but it was quickly repudiated as too dangerous.
Less dramatic options include symbolic shows of force, such as sending additional troops to U.S. bases in the country, conducting military exercises there or sailing warships through the Panama Canal.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was summoned to the White House to discuss options with Bush, but officials said that no firm recommendations were offered.
The President began the day by meeting with the official U.S. delegation that he had dispatched to observe Sunday's balloting. The group reported blatant fraud and ballot rigging and recommended strong action. Some congressional members of the team recommended that he order a quick, unspecified military response.
Bush ended his consultations with a late-afternoon session with Carter, who headed a delegation of independent election observers in Panama.
Standing in a light rainfall outside the White House after the meeting, the Carter said that any Panamanian suggestion of a victory by candidate Carlos Duque, "Noriega's partner in business and in this fraud, is totally false."
Carter, however, urged caution and advised against the use of military force, saying, "Any sort of military involvement down there would immediately alienate the Panamanian people who respect their nation's sovereignty, as do we." Also, he said, any move to abrogate the Panama Canal treaties "could play right into Noriega's hands." Under the treaties, the canal was turned over to Panama in 1979, and major roles retained by the United States in the defense and operation of the waterway will end Dec. 31, 1999.
Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), a member of the U.S. observer delegation, introduced legislation Tuesday calling on Bush to nullify the treaties in response to the election abuses. White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said there is no plan to take such a step, but he added, "We do have concerns about how they (the treaties) are carried out."
Despite the flurry of activity in the Administration, the breadth of the options under consideration underlined the obvious dilemma--none at hand is considered both plausible and effective. Officials indicated that the open discussion of military options serves to keep Noriega off balance.
Among the non-military options for responding to a fraudulent election outcome, some of which are under consideration, are withdrawal of the American ambassador from Panama, direct recognition of the opposition presidential candidate as the new president of Panama, imposition of trade sanctions and arranging a deal in which pending U.S. drug-trafficking indictments against Noriega would be lifted in exchange for the strongman's departure from Panama.
One senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be named, criticized the White House for talking tough on Panama but doing nothing. "That's not the act of a mature superpower," he said. "It's the act of a buffoon."
Meanwhile, the Administration stepped up its campaign to win widespread denunciation of Noriega by other nations in Latin America and in Europe, to increase international pressure on him.
Bush praised President Alan Garcia of Peru, "who has spoken out against the fraud," and said that Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez is encouraging neighboring countries to issue a joint statement "against the fraud that is taking place and calling on Noriega to honor the results of this election."
For the time being, Bush and other officials made it clear that their immediate course will be to await final announcement of the official election results in Panama and Noriega's disclosure of his own plans.