The Reagan administration is still trying to negotiate the departure of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega. But Washington remains divided on what is needed and acceptable as part of a final arrangement with General Noriega. ``Panama policy has been an example of the three branches of government stepping all over each other. There has never been a consensus on a sure policy to realize our goals and there isn't one now. There is certainly no magic formula,'' says a congressional specialist on Central America.
Last week, President Reagan reportedly approved the broad outlines of a deal that would win Noriega's departure from office in return for dropping US drug indictments against him and lifting US sanctions against Panama.
But it is not yet clear that United States negotiators will be able to finalize an agreement. Many US and Panamanian sources say they still doubt he is negotiating sincerely.
``It ain't easy to get rid of a dictator. We were lulled into forgetting that with Haiti and the Philippines. But in those countries, US actions were part of a much larger puzzle, which just hasn't come together in Panama,'' a Senate aide says.
Even if an agreement is reached with Noriega, it is not certain that it will be politically saleable in Washington. Tuesday night the Senate passed 86-10 a ``sense of the Congress'' resolution opposed to any deal involving the drug indictments.
``Among thoughtful Republicans there is a growing concern over dropping the drug indictments,'' says a senior Republican aide. ``If the final resolution is only cosmetic, you could be handing the Democrats a big campaign issue on a silver platter.''
Any deal seen to preserve Noriega's clout in Panama and to sell out the Panamanian opposition will be sharply criticized, congressional sources say. ``Our concern is that the administration may be trying to negotiate a solution to the Panamanian political process, without reference to the Panamanian opposition,'' says a Democratic staff aide.
Panama's ambassador to Washington agrees. Juan B. Sosa, who remains loyal to deposed President Eric Arturo Devalle says his worry ``is that the US might be secretly negotiating points that are for the Panamanian people to negotiate.''
Press accounts of the proposed arrangement say Noriega's handpicked President, Manuel Sol'is Palma, would continue as acting President after Noriega retires and leaves Panama in August. Mr. Sol'is Palma would reportedly govern until elections in May 1989. At some point Noriega would be allowed to return home, though when is reportedly still under negotiation.
Administration sources emphatically deny that the US would bestow any legitimacy on Sol'is Palma as part of a solution, though they would not comment on other aspects of the talks.
The administration is trying to keep the details of the negotiations secret. But the lack of consensus in and out of the administration over what constitutes an acceptable deal complicates the negotiators' task.
Immediately after last week's meeting laying out the proposed arrangements, officials in the Justice Department and in the two US attorneys' offices that indicted Noriega apparently leaked details to scuttle the deal. Earlier leaks attributed to the White House prematurely indicated an agreement was at hand.
Critics in the administration say letting Noriega off the hook would set a terrible precedent for US anti-drug efforts. Several prominent lawmakers have echoed objections.
However, officials from the White House and the departments of State and Defense and a number of congressional staff members counter that getting Noriega out of office and out of Panama achieves a basic US interest. Half a loaf now is better than none, says one.
``It's perfectly legitimate to negotiate with the indictments,'' says a Democratic Senate staff aide, ``especially as an alternative to sending troops.... That guy isn't worth one American life.''
US officials say their quivers are limited.
The President has ruled out using military force. Economic sanctions are not enough to topple Noriega quickly. Continued use of sanctions will further harm Panama's economy and undermine the largely pro-US middle class. Noriega's political opposition has not been able to bring the popular masses into the streets, they add.
``Sure it's a sad situation ... but what do you do when there is no domestic [US] consensus for a strong Central America policy and Noriega doesn't have to contemplate the worst case,'' says one well-placed official.
If Noriega can be persuaded to retire and leave the country, ``people will start making independent arrangements,'' argues a congressional aide, ``and to a certain extent we will have achieved our goals.''
He and others admit, however, that any deal worked out now will come under careful political scrutiny in Washington. ``This problem is a political issue which may now be tied to the presidential campaign.... People will charge that the administration just wants out quickly to avoid embarrassment of a crisis that drags on,'' says a Democratic aide.
A Republican staff member adds that Republicans worry damaging information may come out about Vice-President George Bush's ties to Noriega, if the deal looks like a sellout.
Congressional aides say Congress shares the blame for the convoluted US policy by pushing for a quick fix and encouraging drug indictments.
``There were a lot of liberal legislators egging the administration on with sanctions because they saw this as a popular drug issue,'' says a well-placed Democratic staff aide, ``and now those same legislators are ready to jump on the administration because sanctions didn't work and drugs are a popular political issue.''
Despite the Senate vote, all congressional sources contacted said the indictments would probably have to be dropped if there is to be a negotiated solution.