What should the United States do about Panama?

The situation in Panama amounts to an international scandal. Panama Wednesday voided its election amid growing allegations of fraud by the forces of Gen. Manuel Noriega and an assault that left the chief opposition presidential candidate with possible brain damage, his running mates wounded, and a bodyguard dead.Though a variety of responses are available to Washington, none can be considered a cure-all.

While there's talk of escalating the economic sanctions already being applied against Panama by the United States, such a move seems pointless except as a symbolic gesture. Present sanctions have done great hardship to the people of Panama without toppling the country's military strongman. Long experience shows that economic sanctions seldom work.

Military intervention should also be out of the question. Though there's little doubt that U.S. military forces could beat Panamanian forces, an invasion would endanger the lives of the 30,000 to 40,000 American civilians in Panama, run the risk of sabotage to the intricate and priceless locks of the Panama canal, and produce a firestorm of anti-Americanism throughout Latin America.

Fortunately, there are other ways America can apply pressure. For example, the United States could send additional troops to U.S. bases in Panama, conduct military exercises there, sail warships through the Panama Canal, and order military dependents in Panama City to move onto U.S. bases.

Diplomatically, Washington could withdraw the U.S. ambassador to Panama, formally recognize the opposition candidate as the new president of Panama, and keep trying to arrange a deal in which U.S. drug-trafficking indictments against Noriega would be dropped in exchange for Noriega's departure.

Meanwhile, Washington certainly should reconsider the 1977 treaty by which the U.S. is to turn exclusive control of the canal over to Panama by the turn of the century.

The United States can't unilaterally abrogate the treaty without making Washington's promises suspect throughout the world. But the fact remains that it's hard to place much confidence in Panama's own promise of the canal's lasting neutrality as long as Panama is run by one of the world's leading drug smugglers. Moreover, the treaty provides at least one method for the United States to apply leverage to Noriega without violating the pact.

We're referring to the provision by which the present American administrator of the canal is scheduled to be replaced by a Panamanian next January. The treaty specifies that the new administrator is to be approved by the U.S. Senate. It's hard to imagine that such approval will be forthcoming as long as Noriega runs Panama. Aside from the present crisis, there's reason for the United States to go slow on implementing the treaty. Americans in Panama last year suffered more harassment - ranging from beating to bomb threats - than any year since 1980.

The bottom line, then, is that Noriega must go. As the United States tries to pry him out of power, Washington should be sure it makes no threats it is not prepared to follow through on.