Just a few weeks ago, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega seemed to be another hapless dictator teetering on the brink, about to suffer the same fate as Haiti's Jean Claude Duvalier and the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos.

But not only has the Panamanian strongman survived, he also has been an unsettling presence on the U.S. political scene, causing George Bush to break with established policy and producing a degree of interagency turmoil which is unusual even by this administration's contentious standards.At times, administration bureaucrats seem angrier with each other than with Noriega.

Ideas aired within the administration and the Congress on how to deal with Noriega have gone from one extreme to the other:

Why not kidnap him? How about a trade embargo against Panama? Let Noriega think the United States will invade; maybe that will scare him into exile. Since Noriega is not inclined to listen to the United States, perhaps other Latin American governments can talk him into stepping down.

Almost nothing has gone right. The State Department, after being accused of winking at Noriega's alleged drug smuggling activities for years, found itself on the defensive when its efforts to remove him came up short.

Noriega even has Bush turning on the administration

these days. Bush said Wednesday that, if elected, he would not "bargain with drug dealers . . . whether they are on U.S. or foreign soil" - an implied criticism of government attempts to use dismissal of drug smuggling indictments to get Noriega out of power.

Bush seems intent on not allowing the Democrats to outflank him on the drug issue. His comment followed polls showing him trailing Democratic front-runner Michael Dukakis and a Senate vote that reflected strong opposition to letting indicted drug smugglers off the hook.

Meanwhile, State Department officials are angry with Justice Department counterparts who leaked details of the secret negotiations with Noriega last week. And Pentagon officials accuse the State Department of coming up with "harebrained schemes" for an anti-Noriega plot that included use of U.S. military forces.