The collapse of U.S. efforts to negotiate Manuel Antonio Noriega's departure from Panama is being
hailed by both congressional Democrats and Republicans, who assert that the administration's strategy was misguided from the start.There were virtually no dissenting voices Wednesday after Secretary of State George P. Shultz, appearing solemn at a hastily arranged news conference, said that Noriega had rejected U.S. proposals for his resignation as defense chief and his temporary departure from Panama.
The reaction came as no surprise because criticism of the administration's stand had been widespread well before Shultz's announcement. The critics included Vice President George Bush, Justice Department officials, Panamanian opposition leaders and 86 senators.
Perhaps the most biting comment of all was made by Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., who expressed no regret at all for the administration's negotiations failure.
"This administration negotiates with the darnedest people - Iranian terrorists and Panamanian drug dealers," Cranston said. "I think we should have an administration that doesn't negotiate with people like that.
"This administration has handled the Noriega situation so badly that it is an embarrassment to the United States."
After the negotiations broke down, President Reagan ordered the return of State Department envoy Michael Kozak to Washington. Shultz said that the negotiating package, worked out laboriously between Kozak and Panamanian officials in the last few weeks, has been scrapped.
"No further negotiations are contemplated," Shultz said. "All proposals addressed during these negotiations have been withdrawn. No offers remain on the table."
Shultz refused comment when asked if military solutions are being contemplated. But at the Pentagon, officials insisted no plans were afoot for direct military intervention in Panama.
For much of the day Wednesday, a deal seemed to be within reach. But Kozak telephoned the State Department at 4 p.m. EDT to pass along the news of Noriega's decision.
"At the final moment in negotiations, Noriega would not carry through with the arrangements his representatives had negotiated," Shultz told reporters.
Under Secretary of State Michael Armacost said Noriega had indicated that "majors and captains" within Panama's Defense Forces "might take strong action" against him if he agreed to the deal.
Bush, who has expressed some misgivings at the Reagan administration's negotiations with Noriega, on Wednesday said that he still was optimistic that Noriega could be persuaded to step down.
"I'm convinced Noriega will be out of power," Bush told reporters in Lakehurst, N.J. "The fact that we haven't solved this doesn't depress me.
"I don't want a bad deal. I want a good deal. We'll have to go back and figure it out."
Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said that he welcomed Shultz's announcement. "Noriega must go if we are to achieve our goals in Panama. But sending Noriega off into retirement with a legal golden parachute . . . would have been the wrong step at the wrong time."
This was a reference to the most controversial aspect of the administration's proposal: dismissing federal drug smuggling indictments against Noriega.
In February, two federal grand juries in Florida indicted Noriega on charges of taking at least $4.6 million in payoffs from a drug ring based in Medellin, Colombia, to protect cocaine shipments, launder money and hide drug smugglers from law enforcement officials.