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The man who wouldn't leave

ALL the rumored deals and the put-downs of recent United States efforts to persuade the Panamanian strong man, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, to step down sound like a script made to order for TV's ``Saturday Night Live.'' Unfortunately, through it all, General Noriega remains not only in power but popular enough in some quarters to stir talk of a run for the presidency.

The success of any deal will depend on how well it answers basic questions:

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When Noriega gives up his title, and possibly his country, what are the guarantees that he will actually relinquish power?

Will the machinery remain in place that could allow another military dictatorship?

Can corruption and drug dealing elsewhere in Panama's top military ranks also be rooted out?

Under whose leadership and by what process will Panama arrive at free elections?

At issue is not only what kind of deal, consistent with US goals, General Noriega would accept but what kind the majority of Panamanians and Americans would also accept. The longer the deal-making takes, the tougher that task becomes.

Noriega's political opponents have had little if any role in the secret US-Panamanian talks. Their involvement is key; they should be not just informed but consulted.

For the US to negotiate only with Noriega about Panama's political future is as shortsighted as if some foreign country were to consult only President Reagan, ignoring the Democrats, in talks on the future of the US.

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This administration's penchant for unilateral action is particularly unfortunate in Panama's case. An early effort to build widespread Latin support for a Noriega stepdown would surely have been far more effective and have left the US less vulnerable to charges of Yankee interference.

Secret negotiations between Noriega and the former presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela won the general's consent in February to resign in May. But the plan was scuttled when two days later Eric Arturo Delvalle, the man the US still recognizes as Panama's President, made an unsuccessful attempt, presumably at US urging, to dismiss Noriega.

If that or a similar Latin mediation effort were resumed, the US could play an important support role, keeping its valid democratic, human rights, and drug trafficking concerns at the forefront.

Noriega's political opponents fret that an accord reached behind their backs might allow Noriega to keep power, perhaps through the continued presidency of Manuel Sol'is Palma, until next May's elections.

Many US law enforcement officials and lawmakers worry that an embarrassed US may be tempted to give up too much to get too little. The Senate this week overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing the dropping of the federal drug indictments against Noriega. Justice Department aides are said to have leaked word that the US had made such an offer in hopes that public outrage would kill it. The concern is that dropping the indictments could undermine US efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the US and, as GOP Sen. Bob Dole says, send the wrong signal to the world's drug kingpins.

Yet the importance of holding firm on the drug charges is largely symbolic: Noriega is unlikely ever to stand trial. Also, the US government's defense, intelligence, and drug enforcement communities long knew the extent of Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking but found it convenient to work closely with the de facto ruler anyway.

The indictments are the US's only real bargaining chip. The administration must consider carefully whether the gains from dropping the charges would outweigh the losses. The political repercussions for Vice-President George Bush and other Republicans could be severe if the agreement is seen as a sellout. Already Mr. Bush has distanced himself, insisting he would never ``bargain'' with drug dealers.

A cosmetic deal with Noriega is no deal. The best way to guard against it and ensure that Panama gets back on the road to economic and political stability at the earliest moment is to involve a wider spectrum of Panamanian, Latin, and American opinion in the decision process.

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