THE ``Noriega must go'' saga has reached the point where the United States is actively negotiating the ouster of the Panamanian commander in chief. The US clearly has a role to play, but the part must be played carefully. Most Panamanians have closed their shops and offices in protest against strong man Manuel Antonio Noriega's continued rule. But it is the Reagan administration that is calling the shots on the terms of his exit. So far the administration and General Noriega call each other's offers ``unacceptable.''
The result is a standoff. A defiant Noriega insists he is fighting ``the ultimate battle for dignity and against colonialism.'' The administration counters that Noriega is the root cause of Panama's continuing instability and must leave for the good of his people.
That Noriega at some point will join the ranks of the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, and Jean-Claude Duvalier seems clear; all came to see the appeal of life in exile. What will trigger the move - more external economic pressure or perhaps another military coup attempt - and when it will occur, remain to be seen.
Noriega is trying to drive a wedge between the United States and its Latin friends by charging US interference in internal affairs. He also aims to divide his political opposition at home by offering to step down before the May 1989 presidential elections, as long as a national political dialogue is held with the current government. To date, he has succeeded in neither effort. That could change. Early this week the Mexican President noted that Panamanians are being subjected to grave violations of international law because of US pressure.
To its credit, the Reagan administration has kept the Noriega debate separate from attempts by some in the US to weave a reopening of the Panama Canal treaties into the discussion; such mixing could be dangerous. Also, the administration wisely stresses to the Panamanian Defense Forces that it seeks only Noriega's exodus.
The US, so long accused of cozying up to right-wing dictators, is clearly on a new path these days, warmly embracing democratic over authoritarian rule regardless of the consequences. US distancing from Noriega, however, should have begun four years ago when he rigged Panama's national elections. The US, which has finally seen the wisdom of breaking ranks with him, now tries to make up for lost time by its head-and-shoulders involvement in setting terms for Noriega's ouster. The administration has been not a little embarrassed that so far it has been unable to budge Noriega in a nation in which US influence has traditionally been the strongest in the hemisphere.
The line between overinvolvement and solid support for the many Panamanians undergoing great sacrifices to force their leader out is a delicate one for the US. The administration can walk that line best by consulting on strategy with its Latin neighbors and Panama's opposition; their consensus on the need for Noriega's exit should make the job easier. The administration should also avoid becoming too tied to Eric Arturo Delvalle, recently deposed as president after trying to dismiss Noriega. Though by circumstance portrayed as a champion of democracy, he was once Noriega's puppet, and is now president only symbolically. Few Latin nations see his role as critical.
Noriega's ouster remains the first priority. Spain is willing to take in the Panamanian strong man, and the US is willing to drop its demand for his extradition on US drug trafficking charges. Not a bad deal. Noriega should realize that hanging on and taking his long-suffering nation down along with him is no alternative.