WASHINGTON -- The United States compared the Panamanian regime of Gen. Manuel Noriega to Adolf Hitler and said Noriega will soon become an international 'outlaw.'
American officials also hinted Thursday they were prepared to act unilaterally to topple Noriega after the Organization of American States failed to negotiate the strongman's removal from power in Panama.
A four-member commission appointed by the OAS foreign ministers reported Wednesday it had not been able, in three months, to mediate the terms under which Panama would return to civilian democratic rule.
The OAS issued a report critical of Panama's abuses of human rights, but also criticized the U.S. government for staging military maneuvers at a time when such actions could inflame the political situation.
The OAS foreign ministers ended their marathon strategy session early Thursday morning. The U.S. representative, deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, warned that if Noriega does not relinquish power by Sept. 1, the date set by the Panamanian constitution, 'Then the Noriega regime will have declared itself to be an outlaw among civilized nations and we should treat it accordingly.'
Eagleburger said every OAS member nation 'has the obligation to isolate this outlaw regime.' He did not suggest any specific actions, although U.S. officials talked earlier of further tightening the existing economic embargo as a first step.
Accusing Noriega of giving safe haven to drug traffickers, the laundering of drug money and permitting his country to be used as a cocaine transhipment point, Eagleburger compared Noriega to Hitler.
Eagleburger said, 'That is aggression as surely as Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland 50 years ago was aggression. It is aggression against us all, and some day it must be brought to an end.'
Noriega was indicted last year by two federal grand juries in Florida on charges of involvement in drug trafficking.
One State Department official said, 'Clearly, the multilateral approach didn't work with Noriega, and so we are now looking at other options for acting alone. At this point, I wouldn't rule anything out.'
The official said it was possible that some other nations might be interested in acting in concert with the United States in bringing further pressure against Noriega.
In its final declaration, the OAS council of ministers recommended that the Inter-American Human Rights commission send a delegation to investigate reports of abuses by the Noriega government. But even that recommendation, according to the declaration, can only be carried out with 'the consent of Panama.'
In the long, closed debate at the OAS, U.S. officials continually urged strong, direct action, focused on Noriega. But that argument, according to diplomats, repeatedly ran into the argument that the OAS should not be meddling in the internal affairs of any country.
Eagleburger answered that argument publicly in his closing remarks to the council, reminding the council it was dealing with a crisis caused by Noriega overturning the results of national elections May 7.
'He stole the election because he lost it and attempts to shift the focus from that overwhelming fact are nothing more nor less than deliberate obfuscation,' Eagleburger said.
The American delegate said concern about foreign intervention is legitimate.
'But what, in God's name,' Eagleburger asked, 'would we gathered here today call the international drug trade, and those who aid it and abet it but intervention in our internal affairs? That is how the United States regards these activities; we intend to do all we can to bring them to an end.'
Noriega, as commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces, is the de facto ruler of Panama. The OAS became involved after Noriega and his followers tried to rig Panama's May 7 election results. When that failed, paramilitary gangs brutally attacked and beat opposition candidates, and stole ballot boxes.
An election commission appointed by Noriega then annulled the election results when it appeared the opposition had won.