Despite the outrage over the behavior of Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and the desire to see him depart the scene, the United States appears to be settling into a period of ``wait and see'' restraint. President Reagan yesterday announced that Panama has failed to cooperate fully in combating drug trafficking. Under the 1986 antidrug law, the United States must keep in place the economic and military sanctions imposed against Panama last year and continue to vote against any loans to Panama from international banks. (US drug report, Page 28.)
But Mr. Reagan is not using his authority under the law to impose more punitive trade sanctions with a view to forcing General Noriega's removal.
``The sentiment is against it because sanctions have never worked,'' says a White House official. ``All that might do is stimulate nationalism.''
Lawmakers, too, appear to be treading cautiously despite the call of some members of Congress for tougher sanctions.
Several ``sense of Congress'' resolutions have been or will be introduced condemning Noriega and supporting Eric Arturo Delvalle, the Panamanian civilian president who is now in hiding. But beyond resorting to rhetorical denunciations of Noriega, many legislators are reluctant to support a trade embargo, viewing it as counterproductive and unworkable.
For all the signs of dissension within the administration over how to bring about Noriega's ouster, many US officials and independent diplomatic specialists favor a measured US posture. They argue that:
A trade embargo would undermine the Panama Canal Treaty, which requires Panama to make all its canal-related purchases of goods and services in the United States.
Panama now functions on the dollar standard. Trade sanctions would erode that dollar base and force Noriega to start issuing Panamanian money, which would weaken the Panamanian economy for the indefinite future.
The Panamanian military dictator, who has been indicted recently on drug-trafficking charges, is likely to fall of his own weight in time as the economy suffers and opposition to his rule mounts. With a $1.3 billion debt to commercial banks and $525 million to the World Bank, Panama will find it difficult to obtain new loans and, unable to meet its military and civilian payroll, will face growing popular disaffection.
The one thing Washington should avoid is the image of the ``gringo imperialist'' again dictating its conditions to countries in Latin America. If the Panamanians are unwilling to push for Noriega's ouster, the United States cannot carry the ball.
Although the Organization of American States (OAS) refused to recognize Delvalle as the legitimate head of state, Latin American leaders are quietly making known their distaste for Noriega. ``Contadora'' leaders meeting in Colombia recently suspended Panama from their group.
Longtime experts on the region tend to be critical of the recent US indictments of Noriega on drug charges. They says they believe these have cornered the Panamanian dictator and made it more difficult to work out his departure.
``It limits our options in easing him out gracefully,'' comments Ambler Moss, former US ambassador to Panama.
But the sensible policy now, diplomatic experts suggest, is to work quietly behind the scenes to encourage Latin American leaders to bring collective pressures to bear on Noriega and avoid assuming a unilateral stance. It is only a matter of time, experts say, before Noriega is forced out by his own people.
``You don't want to get too far out and convert this into a Noriega-US fight,'' says Richard Millett, a Latin America specialist at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
``Other Latin American governments are moving on this - Costa Rica, Guatemala, Argentina, Bolivia,'' Mr. Millett says. ``It's not a finished issue. Noriega will go this year and, though an embargo could speed the process, it would damage the economy ... and why damage the whole country to get rid of Noriega?''
Sol Linowitz, who helped negotiate the Panama Canal Treaties, similarly cautions against the US trying to go it alone.
``This cannot be made a US-Panama confrontation - that's the way to endanger the canal,'' Mr. Linowitz says. ``Nor should we put trade sanctions on now unless other countries of the region favored it. It's a false assumption that we can't work together with the Latin Americans, who have a deep concern about the drug menace.''
Panamanian supporters of President Delvalle, meanwhile, are trying to stanch the flow of money to Panama. Panamanian Ambassador Juan B. Sosa told reporters yesterday that, in accordance with a proclamation by Delvalle, Panamanian consulates in New York, Hamburg, Genoa, and London had agreed to withhold shipping and any other fees received. Other consulates of Panama were expected to follow suit.
Ambassador Sosa expressed satisfaction with the President's decertification decision and US economic actions to date.
A trade embargo is ``academic,'' he said, because Noriega will be out ``in a few days.''