In one of his last statements as president, Ronald Reagan made a suggestion that ought to be seriously considered even though it seems to conflict with standard American principles and practices.

His suggestion: That if Gen. Manuel Noriega remains in power, the United States should reconsider its commitment to give up the Panama Canal in 10 years.Reagan's words seem to be at odds with the rule of law and the belief that the United States should carefully abide by its treaty commitments, as indeed it should in almost all cases.

However, when the Senate ratified the 1978 Panama Canal treaties it was with the tacit understanding that the waterway would revert to a democratic government with decent relations with the United States.

Unfortunately, that understanding proved wrong. Noriega is not only a dictator, but is also deeply involved in drug trafficking, for which he has been indicted in Florida.

Indeed, Noriega has become a sworn enemy of this country, venting his hatred by abusing American military personnel unfortunate enough to be stationed there.

For that matter, Noriega is an enemy of his own people. He has clung to power against the will of most Panamanians by surrounding himself with military thugs. He buys their loyalty by sharing graft and drug money. Like the general, his cohorts are eagerly waiting to gain access to canal revenues.

If those around Noriega get the idea that they might not get that loot as long as the general is around, they might have an incentive to depose him and make their peace with Washington.

In any event, the Panama Canal is important to U.S. commerce and defense. Does it really make sense to put it in the hands of a anti-American despot who has allied himself with such foes of this country as Cuba and Libya?