The dangers of `gringo diplomacy' in Panama ... [ cf. ... and of ignoring Dr. Esquivel's advice ]

AMONG those wielding political authority on this planet, Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega is among the least lovable. Cagey and authoritarian, he is eclectic enough in practicing statecraft to have flirted with both Moscow and Havana. While many of the drug-dealing charges against him should be viewed with skepticism, it is difficult to imagine Panama's becoming so important a transit point for Colombian cocaine without his nod. Yet in trying to dispose of him, the United States appears to have embraced crude diplomatic activism at the expense of sound policymaking. The facts on the ground in Panama have been largely ignored. The views of relevant agencies have been dismissed out of hand. The foreign-policy chain of command has been all but by-passed. Longer-term US interests in Central America have been placed at risk as a crisis manufactured in Washington has been allowed to run rampant. Both Congress and the executive branch have engaged in a sort of mutually reinforcing ``gringo diplomacy.''

Because Panama is the site of the canal and headquarters for 10,000 US troops, there has been no shortage of information and analysis on developments there from the embassy, the military, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

On four essential matters there is little dispute:

General Noriega and his 16,000 Panama Defense Forces troops have been in firm political control. Should he disappear from the scene, his place would quickly be taken by one of the 15 or so colonels serving immediately under his command.

The political opposition to the military has been weak, divided, upper middle class, and ineffectual.

Noriega has been seen as no threat to US interests in Panama and the region. The CIA used to regard him as a good source on developments within Cuba and Nicaragua, and the drug enforcement agency saw him as a cooperative ally in the effort to control narcotics traffic.

The use of US economic power has been considered a weapon with as many potential risks as benefits. Unless applied to the choking point, it was as likely to rally support for Noriega as to undermine his position.

Actually such pressure has destroyed Panama's dollar-based economy, closing banks and businesses, denying the country international credit, and turning a largely subsistence economy into a subsistence one. Finally cracks have been produced in Noriega's military support. That he continues to hold on shows the depth of national support for the 1968 PDF-led revolution.

So to deliver a country from a crisis that didn't exist, protect interests that weren't threatened, and support an opposition without form, the US used its power in ways certain to cause trauma in the region.

The architect for this gambit has been Elliott Abrams, the State Department's assistant secretary for inter-American affairs. At a Feb. 17 meeting with President Eric Arturo Delvalle, Mr. Abrams reached an accord on the plan for Mr. Delvalle to fire Noriega, a move that no one in government thought Delvalle could make stick. Abrams, along with powerful private-sector lawyers, then plotted the series of US economic measures designed to squeeze Noriega into submission.

President Reagan, preparing for the NATO summit, was aloof enough from the goings-on to have denied publicly that any economic steps were planned. Secretary of State George Shultz, traveling between Moscow and the Middle East and Brussels, was not asked to sign on until the 11th hour. National-security adviser Colin Powell was with Mr. Shultz. Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci III was totally out of the loop.

Had these senior heads been more involved in the deliberations, they might have decided that it was bad business for a superpower like the US to be meddling in the internal affairs of a tiny country like Panama to the point of installing a puppet in the president's chair, and pulling the strings while he remained in hiding. It is bad business to be tampering with payments mandated by the Panama Canal treaties and to be manipulating the actions of US-controlled banks in the country.

Reverberations from this sort of conduct will likely be heard throughout the region. Governments there may have less trust in future US agreements and assurances and be slower to rely on US economic guarantees. They may also search for bigger friends able to serve as a counterweight to US pressure.

What is most remarkable is the wall-to-wall political support behind the effort to oust Noriega. One is not surprised to see Sen. Jesse Helms perplexed over the quality of the government about to take over his beloved canal. One would have expected Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy to be more restrained in their advocacy of the coercive power of the US to achieve even desirable ends in Central America.

C. Robert Zelnick is Pentagon correspondent for ABC News and former Supreme Court correspondent for the Monitor and National Public Radio.

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