The US and Panama

THE United States had ample provocation in Panama. Assaults against individual Americans and threats of further aggression topped two years of growing frustration with Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, whose grip on power withstood coups, disgust over electoral fraud, and international censure. President Bush, in the midst of action, is given the benefit of the doubt as to his intelligence information about imminent attacks against US personnel and the urgency of intervention. This rationale will be reviewed by Congress, world opinion, and the American public. At the outset at least, leaders of the Senate and House, Democratic and Republican, backed Bush.

Armed intervention has its costs - not least the loss of lives. The chances of quickly capturing the wily Noriega were slight. Incoming flights of American reinforcements would have tipped him off early.

The special US relationship in Panama must be taken into account. Still, US relations within the hemisphere are made more difficult by Washington's resort to force. Many leaders may be privately relieved to have Noriega out of the picture, but domestic politics will prevent them from saying so. They would not want to endorse the longstanding American inclination to intervene in the affairs of its near neighbors.

Bush, even more than Reagan before him, had tried to dislodge the general through multilateral, regional means. Various leaders had joined in diplomatic thrusts at the Panamanian. The Organization of American States sent delegations to Panama City. These efforts persisted despite Noriega's thuggery and disregard for the will of his people.

Should they have been pursued further, despite the frustrations involved?

For the moment, Bush's actions have pushed aside the diplomatic option. The questions now are whether American soldiers will be able to withdraw soon and how much propping up the new government will need.

President Guillermo Endara can claim a democratic mandate, even though last May's ballots were whisked away by Noriega before an official count could be made. Regrettably, the taint of being installed through US force of arms will linger. The new leaders have little to build on in the way of democratic experience in Panama. Washington's help in restarting a damaged Panamanian economy - not least by removing US sanctions imposed against Noriega's regime - will aid Mr. Endara.

Drastic action has been taken. Now the US needs to finish its work as promptly as possible and put matters back into Panamanian hands.

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