WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT BUSH is earning generally high marks for his handling of the Panama crisis. As with the formation of policy toward Nicaragua, Mr. Bush forsook unilateral action. Instead, he consulted with leaders of Congress and Latin America, and arrived at what State Department officials call a ``careful'' response to Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's blatant attempt to steal the May 7 election. Bush's most visible move was to send 1,800 additional troops to Panama.
``The best thing Bush has done is work to gather international pressure,'' says Viron Vaky, assistant secretary of state for Latin affairs under President Carter. ``Time is not on Noriega's side. He's only got his defense forces left, and they are where this international pressure may have an impact.''
At least 10 Latin leaders, as well as the European Community, have condemned General Noriega's fraud. On Wednesday, the Organization of American States will convene a foreign ministers meeting to consider joint action against Noriega. Even Japan, which has kept a low profile during the longstanding crisis, has called on Noriega to ``respect the general will of the people.'' For Japan, the Panama situation has cut two ways: United States sanctions hindering American companies have boosted Japanese business opportunities there. But Japan's heavy use of the Panama Canal means that stability is in Japan's interest.
One significant aspect of Bush's Panama policy is that Washington can now claim to speak with one voice on the matter. ``During the time it took to get options ironed out there was a convergence,'' one State Department official says.
State Department officials have long complained that the Panama-based US Southern Command was allowing US citizens to be harassed. Officials expect Panamanian soldiers to back down in future confrontations.
In addition, the cutback of US Embassy personnel includes the removal of Drug Enforcement Administration agents from Panama, thus eliminating another element of ambiguity in US policy. While Washington officials were calling for Noriega's removal, DEA agents were continuing to enjoy his cooperation in instances where it suited his purposes.
``Noriega's been telling his troops that the gringos really still want him there,'' says another State Department official. ``He's been saying that an election victory [by his candidate] would enhance his legitimacy, and that after the election the ... sanctions would be lifted.''
The US has long hoped to foment a military coup that would remove Noriega and begin the process of cleaning out the corruption that runs extensively throughout his mafia-like organization. With Bush's latest announcement, the US indicates a coup within the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) is its best bet, officials say.
According to one official, some PDF men have been telling people on the streets that they are with the opposition. Some have also reportedly prevented civilians from being beaten. US officials and independent election observers say reports that some PDF members voted against Noriega's candidate are credible.
But getting them to revolt is another matter. In March 1988, Noriega foiled a coup attempt. The plotters now lie in prison, reportedly having been tortured - a point Noriega has made known to his men, officials say.
Under a decree by Noriega, the PDF has virtually no contact with US military men, and so there is little opportunity to try to lure them out of his grasp. Phones are assumed to be tapped. As a master of psychological operations, Noriega keeps his men afraid of each other, and therefore afraid to talk mutiny. But with the opposition's stunning election victory, the dynamic in Panama has changed. Noriega has no popular mandate. And for the sake of their own institution, the PDF may decide Noriega has become too great a liability. That, at least, is what the US hopes.