Getting Noriega

AT best, the failure to rid Panama of General Noriega last week was a missed opportunity for the US. At worst, it was an American foul-up.

The accusations of poor performance are still flying. A lot of top officials are running for cover. Some Democrats with a record of supineness on Nicaragua are breathing fire over Panama. Some Republicans with a record of militancy on Nicaragua are charging President Bush with supineness on Panama.

The investigation continues, but the American failure to move decisively must be attributable to one, or perhaps several, of three factors:

l. Poor intelligence.

2. Poor communications.

3. Poor decision-making.

The quality of American intelligence about the coup attempt against General Noriega is far from clear. Apparently Central Intelligence Agency officers did meet with coup leader Maj. Moises Giroldi Vega on the eve of the coup. But Major Giroldi seems to have been an unknown player to American intelligence, both before and during the coup.

Communications - both between Panama and Washington, and among leading officials in Washington themselves - seem to have been spotty. It seems incomprehensible, for instance, that some meetings of key government agency heads in Washington took place without the CIA's participation.

Then whatever the quality of intelligence and communications, questions must be asked about the quality of the decisions made in the White House. It cannot be simply said that the White House decided not to intervene. It was aware of the coup in advance, and it ordered US troops to cooperate with the coup forces by blocking two key highways to Noriega reinforcements. The troops failed to block a crucial third highway. The fact is, the US already had intervened but elected not to take further, decisive steps that might have neutralized Noriega.

We are not talking here about killing the Panamanian strongman. We are not talking about committing US troops to battle on Panamanian soil. We are not talking about the kind of Israeli cross-border strike that raises questions of territorial invasion. We are not talking about an Oliver North operation, where questions of morality and legality are brushed aside to achieve a particular end-goal.

We are talking about the political neutralization of a man who holds sway in Panama without mandate, whose thuggery against the political opposition has sickened the world, who is dangerous for Panama and the region.

The US cannot re-make the world and its leaders as it would ideally like to see them. But it must not stand idly by when democracy is trampled, and it has an opportunity to come to its defense.

There is one more reason justifying American action against General Noriega. The US is fighting a desperate war against the drug addiction of its citizens. General Noriega is wanted on criminal narcotics charges in the US. If it requires daring and decisiveness to bring him into an American courtroom to face such charges, the US should not flinch.

Mr. Bush has talked bravely about toppling General Noriega. In the past he has gone about as far as he can publicly go to encourage - some would say incite - anti-Noriega forces to launch a coup. At the moment of opportunity, however, the US remained bogged down in indecision.

Was there not a plan to seize such a moment of opportunity, and if not, why not? Should there not have been, standing by, an elite unit which could have swiftly and skillfully extracted General Noriega from his headquarters while the balance of power was see-sawing back and forth?

We cannot expect some infantry platoon leader in Panama to decide in the heat of the moment what to do about General Noriega. That responsibility lies in Washington. All the indications are that Washington's plans were fuzzy, its instructions were unclear, and its decisions tardy.

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