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Panama Still a Diplomatic Time Fuse for U.S. Foreign Policy in Hemisphere

September 10, 1989|Richard C. Hottelet | Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime CBS news correspondent, was one of the foreign observers invited by the Panamanian government during elections last spring.

WILTON, CONN. — Sept. 1 has come and gone, a milestone in the dismal relations between the United States and Panama. It was to have been a deadline. The Organization of American States had ordered Gen. Manuel Antonia Noriega to transfer power to a democratic government by then--otherwise there would be a dangerous political vacuum.

The presidential terms of Eric Arturo Delvalle, recognized by Washington, and of Manuel Solis Palma, Noriega's man, expired on the first of the month. But the general remained in charge. Smiling and cocky, he simply installed a new government, calling it "provisional" to sugarcoat its illegality, and thumbed his nose to the north.

Now the Bush Administration starts another policy review. It has already reconsidered Ronald Reagan's two years of misguided macho. That mishmash of uncoordinated political and economic pressures, bungled overt and covert operations, public saber-rattling and cozy, secret bargaining with Noriega led back to square one. The Reagan Administration built the little dictator up as the larger-than-life adversary of the United States.

President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III also want to remove Noriega from power. They have discarded Reagan's unilateralism and sought the support of Latin American and Western democracies. They say there will be no quick fix. Whatever is done will take time. But what can be done?

Bush has explicitly affirmed multilateralism. But, especially on Capitol Hill, there is an aversion to moving through the OAS. The United States took the Panama question to the organization in May--after Noriega annulled the election his candidate had lost by a landslide. But the OAS only juggled the issue, sending a mission to Noriega to promote agreement on his departure. After three months he had not agreed or shown any signs that he would. Unwilling to use what teeth it has against a regime that almost all of them despise, the American states merely shrugged. The fact is that they are more afraid of U.S. intervention than Noriega--drug trafficking, corruption and all. When the feckless OAS mission threw in the towel late in August, it asserted "inopportune" U.S. military maneuvers in Panama had had a "negative effect" on its work.

The mood in Congress, shared to some extent in the State Department and the National Security Council, is therefore to ignore the OAS. The United States, some $50 million behind in its dues to the organization, may cut its payments further. As an alternative, it may try to form a network of like-minded governments, including Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Jamaica. While not breaking off diplomatic relations, these nations have withdrawn their ambassadors from Panama.

Washington must indeed cultivate good relations with nations of the Western Hemisphere. However, the history of Latin America indicates that no nation will join the United States in an operation against another. If a Panama settlement is to stick, it must have the sanction of the OAS as a body.

As it considers what to do, the Administration intensifies economic and military-psychological pressure on Noriega--while trying not to conjure up the Latino nightmare of Yankee invasion. Withholding payment of Panama Canal tonnage fees and various taxes, freezing Panamanian assets in the United States, striking the Panamanian sugar quota and the U.S. foreign assistance programs have been painful but not decisive. There are loopholes to be closed.

Military pressure requires finer tuning. One of Bush's early moves was to direct that U.S. installations and rights under the Panama Canal Treaty be defended and the forces of U.S. Southern Command not stand for harassment. "We will not tolerate interference in our fulfillment of our treaty obligations from any quarter," the United States declared in the U.N. Security Council. To this end, U.S. troops have been reinforced and have conducted military exercises. Efforts by Noriega's Panama Defense Forces to hinder legitimate passage or penetrate U.S. areas are quickly squelched.

Officials admit this tough stance holds the potential for violent confrontation, but say there is no desire to provoke it. Yet, as one put it, "Noriega gets drunk frequently. He could do something stupid that would force the United States to take action." The message to Noriega: Don't get rough.

The same advice goes to his army. Washington, hoping to separate the general from his military, says the army has a role in a democratic Panama. It warns troops not to obey Noriega in any adventure against U.S. forces. Perhaps sensing declining support, Noriega is expanding his "dignity brigades"--largely composed of the unemployed laced with police in mufti. They provided the goon squads that brutally beat and killed opposition leaders and demonstrators after the aborted election.

In reviewing its options, the Administration must keep its eye on the goal: an open, efficiently operating canal anchored in the existing treaty and supported by a democratic Panama. Congress is tempted to set the treaty terms aside. Under these terms, as of Jan. 1, the chief operating officer of the canal is to be a Panamanian proposed by Panama. Noriega submitted the name of a crony in July. The United States refused even to accept the letter.

This is a diplomatic dilemma with a time fuse. The appearance of illegality on the part of the United States can only help Noriega. His capacity for mischief is enormous. The threat of armed action or sabotage would send insurance costs skyrocketing and cut canal shipping to a trickle. Washington has less than four months to rally its friends and devise a plan.

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