WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Before you swallow the propaganda that convicting the former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is a great triumph in the drug war, let's look at the costs of a prosecution that has violated some of the basic tenets of this society regarding judicial fairness and world order.
After months of rhetoric setting Noriega up as one of the great murderous villains of our time, President Bush ordered a military invasion of Panama, a might-makes- right foray that ignored Panama's sovereignty under international law. This invasion cost the lives of 23 U.S. military men, some 300 Panamanian soldiers and a few thousand Panamanian civilians. The Pentagon is never going to tell us how many people it killed to deliver Noriega up to Mr. Bush.
But ''it stopped Noriega from poisoning our children,'' you say.
The problem is that the $200 million trial made it clear that Noriega was a thug and a drug lord, but he was for a long period our thug, linked to both the top men and the shadowy figures of the U.S. intelligence and anti-drug agencies. He was on Uncle Sam's payroll!
U.S. prosecutors brought in an assortment of killers, smugglers, dope traffickers and known perjurers to testify against Noriega. These slimy witnesses all got sweet plea bargains, reduced sentences, dropped charges and other inducements. Not one of these witnesses ever tied Noriega directly to any drug shipment to the United States.
Meanwhile, Judge William Hoeveler wouldn't allow the calling of witnesses such as President Bush, Col. Oliver North, Nicaraguan contra leaders and others who knew the extent to which Noriega had played footsie with them. The jury was not allowed to hear what Mr. Bush and Noriega agreed on in their 1983 meeting. The judge just blinked at the wiretapping by prosecution agents of conversations between Noriega and his lawyers.
Does ''getting Noriega'' stop the flow of narcotics from the Colombian cartels through Panama, or the laundering of drug money? No. Mr. Bush took the easy ploy of going to war to get Noriega, but he has had no success in wiping out the dope appetites of the Americans who pay fortunes to get illegal substances.
Is Panama better off because Mr. Bush ''got'' Noriega? No. That country still suffers grievously from the war's destruction. The goons who did Noriega's bidding are still throwing their weight, and bullets, around. Younger drug lords are trading in dope and guns.
Except for giving George Bush a temporary political boost, the invasion of Panama was a small disaster for Panama and outrageously costly for the United States in terms of lives, dollars and its tarnished respect for international law.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.