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Settle With Noriega or Get Soiled : Justice: It’s not too late to buy him out and avoid the exposure of our dirty linen.

<i> William Ratliff is a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford</i>

Gen. Manuel A. Noriega lost the battle of Panama City almost two years ago, but he may yet win the war in the Miami courtroom where his trial on drug-trafficking and other federal charges is about to begin.

This circus masquerading as a trial never should have been. Without doubt, Noriega is guilty of many of the drug charges brought against him, as well as other heinous crimes. But the overriding issue in his trial is something much bigger: the practical, legal and moral consequences of the United States’ working with and then self-righteously dumping a duplicitous crook.

Noriega should have been turned loose as soon as he sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy and left to the mercies of the Panamanian people and the Medellin cartel, both of whom he had betrayed.

Instead, we brought him here, driven, it seems, by the lust for playing domestic politics with foreign affairs--see how tough we can be with foreign drug dealers!--and by a blind vengeance harbored by politicians, the media and many others toward a petty dictator at the expense of everyone’s broader interests.

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Noriega had been a double-dealing “ally” of the United States for decades despite--some say because of--his strong-arming of Panamanians, his involvement in drugs, his ties to Fidel Castro, and other activities that will be tossed up in Miami. One may argue that we should not have worked with him at all, but that is a complex issue we cannot resolve here.

In any event, the ties should have been ended quietly before the showdown began in Panama in mid-1987. With the safe haven offered by Spain, and appropriate pressures and dollars--incalculably less than already has and will be spent capturing and prosecuting him--Noriega could have been bought off or otherwise removed. This not only would have spared us the expense of a trial; it also would have spared the Panamanians the burden of economic sanctions, which during 1988-89 nearly devastated the country and in some ways still are felt--not to mention sparing them the invasion itself.

Above all, Noriega should not have been indicted on drug charges in 1988, for that pushed him into a corner and made a nonviolent resolution of the crisis almost impossible. Then-President Reagan did attempt to negotiate him out shortly afterward, but that sensible effort was sunk by emotional cries about “dealing with drug- traffickers,” by candidate Michael Dukakis and others. Then-Vice President Bush himself lacked the political courage to openly support the President.

Noriega’s trial will harm the security interests of the United States, though less so now than it would have several years ago. It will involve all sorts of dirty linen--some of it legitimately dirty in an often dirty world--that would be better left unaired. Much of the material requested by Noriega’s lawyers has been denied because it is sensitive for assorted reasons; the official ground for denial, that the material is irrelevant, is untrue. Thus Noriega will not be able to back up some of the broader case that he has every right to make to put his relationship with Washington in its true perspective.

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The trial also will reflect poorly on the United States in Latin America and beyond. Though Noriega was never popular in the hemisphere, except with drug lords, Castro and the Sandinistas, many will point to this trial--the first ever involving a foreign former head of state--as the gringos again beating up on Latin Americans, and this when in most respects U.S. relations in the hemisphere are improving.

This criticism will have particular validity because so much of the case is being made on the expected testimony of Noriega’s former cronies, many of whom were “bought” by the legal device of plea-bargaining. A fine image of justice we are portraying.

Finally, by all accounts, the removal of Noriega has hardly put a dent in drug trafficking through Panama.

The United States has always had far more to lose than gain by pursuing this trial. Even at this late hour, it would be better in every way to settle this nasty business out of court.

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