By all accounts, the Panamanian strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, has stolen the Panamanian election. Washington can take actions now that will lead to his removal from power - if it is united and tough enough.
Our policy of threats, negotiations, economic sanctions and rhetoric has failed to drive Noriega from power. Panama is in a state of unrest, following the massive repudiation of the Noriega regime and its electoral skullduggery. This, coupled with President Bush's effective effort to focus international attention on the fraudulent vote, presents new opportunities to ease General Noriega's departure.Although our options are limited, they can be effective if coherently executed.
One option, abrogation of the Panama Canal treaties, should be discarded immediately. To abrogate them would inflame Panamians, destroy our credibility in Latin America and give Noriega the trump card he desperately needs to survive.
Second, we should do nothing that could be interpreted as a sign of weakness or past policy failures.
Third, we should stop thinking of Noriega as just another Third World despot who can be pushed around. He is a manipulative, politically astute bully who has outsmarted us in the past.
Most important, we should exploit the increased unease about Noriega in the military. A secret dialogue should be opened with military commanders.
These covert contacts should be underlined by visible, strong action. First, we should withdraw American dependents who might be affected by increased military tensions. Second, we should increase military maneuvers by U.S. forces in the area.
Third, we should organize strong international pressure in the region and internationally. This would include pushing the Organization of American States, United Nations and other forums to condemn the elections and calling for the installation of a government under Guillermo Endara, the opposition candidate.
Fourth, we need to make clear to the Panamanian opposition that we cannot go it alone. The opposition appears to be sitting back rather than pressing their advantage against Noriega.
Finally, the U.S. government must speak with one voice. It is no secret that the Defense and State Departments have been divided on Panamanian policy. Bush should correct this problem. In the same vein, Congress should be involved in creating policy, not just passing judgment.
Noriega can be forced out if pressure is applied skillfully and rhetoric is backed up with concrete acts. He is reeling from several blows, the most devastating the one his own people delivered in Sunday's elections.
We should not expect immediate results. What matters is the final victory, whether it's achieved in 15 rounds or a quick knockout. Military action should come only as a last resort. Right now, a weakened and reeling Noriega is our best weapon.