LEAD: Surely the United States can't really want custody of General Noriega. It's understandable, of course, that President Bush should pretend he does. Having sent the Army to unhorse a tinpot Caesar, he is obliged to huff and puff about having him handed over to Yankee justice.
Surely the United States can't really want custody of General Noriega. It's understandable, of course, that President Bush should pretend he does. Having sent the Army to unhorse a tinpot Caesar, he is obliged to huff and puff about having him handed over to Yankee justice.
This much is consistent with his effort to persuade the world that sending strategic bombers and the 82d Airborne to Panama isn't much different from sending a bailiff to serve a summons on a recalcitrant felon.
Since a Florida prosecutor had got the general indicted on drug charges, the President could insist he was just carrying out his oath to execute the laws of the United States. This was a noble position for the President to take, but would become awkward if he actually had to execute the law as it applied to Noriega.
The general's flight to sanctuary in the Vatican's embassy seemed such a happy event for Mr. Bush that some people suspected it had been slyly engineered by his agents on the scene.
Once the Vatican had the general, the ancient tradition of holy sanctuary might oblige it to arrange an exile in some convenient St. Helena. In any case the United States was shed of what could have been a monumental pain in the neck if Americans had got the cuffs on him.
To this point everything looked dandy. Tyranny was overthrown, democracy was restored, Bush had justified a military invasion (''Just Cause'') as a law-enforcement operation, and Noriega was somebody else's problem.
Then came the Army's clownish boom-box bombardment - American soldiers drawn up at the Vatican embassy in Panama, playing rock music full blast around the clock to make life hellish for the Pope's emissaries.
Suddenly we seemed to be in Dr. Strangelove country. Punishing the Vatican with heavy-metal rock? Could Gen. Buck Turgidson be behind this strategy? Or was he acting on orders from the big fellow in Air Force One? (''Hit those holy men with every decibel in freedom's arsenal!'') If the U.S. was still just pretending it wanted Noriega, the act had turned into farce so low that the audience was recoiling instead of laughing. But wait a minute - can it be? - is it possible George Bush really does want Noriega in a Miami courtroom?
The sensible aim of American foreign policy surely is to be rid of Noriega as soon as possible so we can get on to important things. In Panama the important thing might be getting the economy back on its feet. Throughout Latin America the important thing might be to subdue angry suspicions that the bad old gringo will never take his boot off the Latin neck.
It's hard to see how pictures from Miami of Noriega in chains could help us much in Latin America. Loathsome the general may be, but he is also a Latin American while the chains are Yankee iron, and the symbolism does not help our cause. Imagine, if you were a Latin American, how many questions you might start with the words ''And anyhow . . .''
''And anyhow, what entitles the United States to indict Latin leaders, then send armies to carry them off to North American courts?''
''And anyhow, loathsome though Noriega may be, hasn't the United States historically propped up Latin tyrants just as odious who played Washington's game?''
''And anyhow, isn't the true case against Noriega not that he was odious and loathsome, but only that he did not show respect for Washington's game?''
The prospect of Noriega on trial must cause shudders among North Americans familiar with our bizarre legal system. For instance, since American justice is justice delayed it's easy to imagine Noriega turned into a hero of sorts in south Florida long before a trial begins.
In most trials the public quickly loses sympathy for the case's victim and chooses up sides for and against the accused. In a strongly Hispanic community like south Florida, it might be hard to convict a Noriega who could portray himself as a martyr to Anglo justice.