Look at it this way: When it comes to picking a ''bum of the month'' to flatten, George Bush is doing a whole lot better job than Don King. Like the suddenly famous Buster Douglas, Panama's General Manuel Noriega was supposed to have been a known commodity; Douglas was supposed to be a loser, Noriega was supposed to be bought and paid for, a wholly owned subsidiary of the CIA. Unlike the prizefighter, however, Noriega made the perfect opponent for a post-Vietnam matchup: a tin-pot dictator with a toy army just right for an invigorating little matinee war.
The truth is that just about everybody except perhaps the authors and publishers of these two estimable books about Noriega both rushed into print months ahead of schedule was glad to see the tyrant brought down. Not that either author has very much sympathy for Noriega, understand. Merely that their detailed and persuasive accounts of how the cunning Panamanian has outwitted and outmaneuvered his U.S. government patrons over an almost 30-year career would have had a lot more impact before rather than after last December's made-for-TV mini-war.
Readers who take a greater interest in the non-televised world, however, will find both books full of fascinating particulars. Dinges, a Latin American specialist who reports for National Public Radio, writes more concisely, displays a more finely tuned skepticism in a liar's paradise, and has a better feel for Panama itself. Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Kempe, on the other hand, supplies an almost fanatically detailed account of the Washington indecision-making process in Divorcing the Dictator.
In outline, the story both books tell is a familiar one: half-baked ideologues stumbling around trying to stage-manage the affairs of countries whose history and culture they barely comprehend.
Though Noriega's symbiotic relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies may go back as far as 1960, it is well documented since 1972 when the Nixon administration considered assassinating him during an earlier War on Drugs. But it was the Reaganites' obsession with Nicaragua that made them most vulnerable to his wiles. In exchange for Noriega's pulling Panama out of the Contadora peace talks, the administration was only too willing to help him perfume a stolen election. In Our Man in Panama Dinges writes: ''Already, a veneer of unreality had come to characterize the official U.S. image of Panama. It had taken some intellectual sleight of hand to recast Noriega from suspected thug who played both sides of the fence to friendly general presiding over the kind of transition to democracy the United States was prescribing for the rest of Central America. An even grander effort was required to give a benign interpretation to the mounting circumstantial evidence during 1984 of high-level complicity in cocaine trafficking... Election fraud did not fit in the U.S. picture of the vigorous, forward-thinking, American-educated president, so it was airbrushed out.''
Anyhow, why would Noriega want the contra-Sandinista conflict to end? At one time or another he was running guns to both sides from Miami and Cuba, respectively. Also to guerrillas in El Salvador and Colombia, and even to Iran, courtesy of the Israelis, who wished to help the Iran-Iraq war continue without leaving fingerprints.
For all the lurid attention given Noriega's individual peculiarities some invented by the State Department and the opposition, as Dinges shows Noriega's regime was not all that violent as Central American regimes go. Nor was it terribly unpopular there until the murder of a socially prominent opponent, maybe on Noriega's orders, maybe not.
More gangster than tyrant, what made Noriega unusual in a nation dominated by oligarchs, smugglers, embezzlers, and middlemen was more than anything else his dark skin and slum origin. The opposition taunts took a distinctly racist cast. Anybody who imagines that his removal will turn the nation into a tidy little democratic paradise must be overdosing on C-SPAN or smoking up bales of Panama Red. Panama will be Panama, just a bit more tastefully now. Kempe: B