Keeping Cool

Not many people in or out of Panama want Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega to remain its de facto ruler. But for all his suspected drug deals and repressive actions, like the attack on opposition leader Guillermo Endara, it is a mistake for U.S. officials to now be making military threats, even veiled ones, against the Noriega regime.

By all accounts, Panamanians voted overwhelmingly Sunday to elect Endara president. He had campaigned promising to remove Noriega from the post that gives him power, commander of the 15,000-man Panama Defense Force. Not surprisingly, Noriega and a few of his supporters in the military conspired to steal the election. But Endara received so many votes that Noriega's minions were having a hard time coming up with enough phony tallies and stuffed ballot boxes to hand the election to Carlos Duque, Noriega's business partner and hand-picked candidate. That is why the election has been nullified by the government.

But even before Noriega finds a way to install Duque as his puppet, the general's blatant electoral fraud has created an international backlash against him. First to express their revulsion were neutral observers of the election process such as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and the leaders of Panama's Roman Catholic Church. Now they are being joined by President Bush and, more important, Latin American presidents such as Peru's Alan Garcia, Costa Rica's Oscar Arias and Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela. This outrage can be used to isolate the Noriega regime, if it is organized and marshaled through legitimate international channels like the Organization of American States.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration seems less interested in seizing this opportunity to score diplomatic points against Noriega than it does in rattling sabers. To their credit, no other U.S. officials have taken seriously the proposal by Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) to annul the Panama Canal treaties and keep the waterway under U.S. control. But there have been White House leaks suggesting that Bush is considering "military options" in Panama, like sending additional troops to U.S. bases in the Canal Zone as a threat to Noriega.

The leaks may help Bush sound tough, but they hurt, rather than help, the effort to oust Noriega. They hand the general an issue to use against his opponents, whom he has tried to portray as lap dogs of the United States. Worse, they make it hard for Latin American leaders to join the United States in ostracizing Noriega. U.S. control of the Panama Canal is a sensitive issue throughout Latin America, as is any hint of U.S. military intervention in the region. Under such circumstances, the best course for the State Department is to play its anti-Noriega cards as quietly and carefully as possible, letting the allies in Latin America take the lead in isolating the dictator.

It will take time, but Noriega can be pressured, and eventually perhaps even ousted, without force. But his many opponents outside Panama--and especially in Washington--must show the same patient fortitude that Noriega's internal opposition has shown. Endara, when asked about U.S. military threats against Noriega, warned against intervention. "We are only asking Washington for solidarity, solidarity, solidarity," he said. Such emphatic advice must be heeded.

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