Should Washington try to renegotiate the Panama Canal Treaty in an effort to keep U.S. troops there after their scheduled departure at the turn of the century?

That's what a group of conservative lawmakers are trying to accomplish with a resolution introduced in the U.S. Senate.Since the new government of Panama is opposed to renegotiation and the Senate knows such a move would antagonize plenty of Latin Americans, it's easy to dismiss the resolution as just an impractical flight of fancy. But don't be too sure.

It might not be hard to get the Panamanian government to change its mind. Without American troops to protect it, that government would be vulnerable to coups like the one attempted last December by the head of Panama's police force. The takeover was thwarted by American troops left over from the 1989 U.S. incursion it took to rid Panama of its drug-dealing dictator, Manuel Noriega.

Besides, the people of Panama seem agreeable to renegotiating the treaty. Only this week a new poll showed that the great majority of Panamanians want U.S. military bases to stay after the year 2000 because of growing concern about the loss of jobs if the bases are closed. Only 27.8 per cent of the people want U.S. forces to leave.

Plenty of other people around the world have reason to be worried about the future of Panama after the turn of the century. The canal is vital to world commerce. Each year some 8,000 ships pass through the Isthmus of Panama. Two-thirds of all canal traffic leaves or comes to the shores of the United States. Militarily, the canal also remains highly important because it cuts more than 6,000 miles and two to three weeks from a voyage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

If Panama could remain free and friendly without an American military presence, fine. But recent events make that prospect highly unlikely. Consequently, the Senate should seriously consider the resolution calling for a renegotiation of the canal treaty.