PANAMA CITY -- Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who has ruled Panama since 1983, is complaining that the Americans have set about destablizing his country in an effort to get rid of him.

Noriega is sitting in the back of his helicopter, called "the Super Puma," with a drink in his hand and a pretty female soldier at his side. He's a short man with a pock-marked complexion, derided by his enemies as "pineapple face."

"We are going to make a list of those the U.S. betrayed," says the Panamanian general. "The shah of Iran, Gen. Alvarez of Honduras -- they kidnapped Alvarez and now he's a teacher in a small military school." He adds Ferdinand Marcos to the list and says that he -- Noriega -- is the next target of the United States.

"You can erase me," Noriega says. "But there are another two guys behind me. Ten years ago, I wasn't here."

Noriega is no angel. He's a military strongman and he's been been accused of corruption, brutality and consorting with Cuba's Fidel Castro. But Noriega has a point. The United States does seem to be trying to overthrow him, for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

The Americans Noreiga blames for his present dilemma include Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), U.S. Ambassador to Panama Arthur Davis and his deputy, John Meisto. He claims that Abrams once asked Arturo Delvalle, the civilian figurehead president of Panama: "Why is Noriega defying us when the general {who ruled} Guatemala just packed his bags?"

Asked whether the United States is, in fact, trying to destabilize Noriega's regime, Abrams says this: "Panama should not be run by a general. It should be run by an elected civilian government. . . . The {U.S.} policy is to promote democracy."

Noriega is bitter. He recalls the day his mentor and predecessor, Gen. Omar Torrijos, asked him to go to Cuba to gain the release of a U.S. serviceman who had been captured during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. He accomplished the mission and noted that "when the Americans need something, they picture it very nicely and say you're a hero, but when they don't need you anymore, they forget you."

He says he has done other favors for the United States. He claims that when the American invasion force took off for Grenada, Vice President George Bush called and asked him to tell Castro to stay away. (Bush denies this through a spokesman.)

"Bush is my friend," says Noriega. "I hope he becomes president."

In blaming the Americans for all his problems, Noriega has downplayed the widespread and genuine opposition to his regime. But it cannot be denied that the United States is playing an active role in undermining him. For example, one senior State Department official wondered out loud recently: "Why is it so hard to get rid of Noriega and Pinochet, when it was so easy with Haiti and Marcos?"

Noriega clearly feels that he's being cornered by the Americans. Last month, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution cutting off military and economic aid within 45 days unless the military (meaning Noriega and his forces) ceased to dominate the politics of Panama. Meanwhile, Panama's economy is crumbling. As a result of the political instability, capital is being withdrawn and credit isn't available.

The situation appeared to be reaching a stalemate in the past month, and moderates were hopeful that a compromise could be arranged.But instead of showing the hoped-for signs of moderation, Noriega lashed out this week. He had Delvalle make a hardline speech warning that the government would crack down on future opposition demonstrations. And after the speech, the police went out and picked up eight U.S. servicemen, who were held overnight along with many Panamanian opposition members.

"This is only a sample of what could happen," says an anxious former U.S. official. "Noriega is bad, but he keeps the lid on. Don't corner him. He will fight and he holds the trump. We've got a catastrophe in Nicaragua. Do we need another one in Panama of our own making?"

Noriega made his name as the head of the Panamanian military intelligence service. In this capacity, he established close intelligence links with the Israelis. (His right hand man is reputedly a former Mossad agent named Mike Herari, and one U.S. official told me that Israel wants to see Noriega stay in power because of the information he provides.) Noriega also developed a long-term relationship with the Cubans.

A Machiavellian character, Noriega managed to play left against right and stay on top in Panama. If he gave communists key positions in his government and made Panama a rest-and-recreation site for some of the world's leading terrorists, he also managed to make it safe for the thousands of U.S. soldiers that are stationed there.

Four months ago everything changed, when Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera broke the code of silence that the Panamanian defense forces had always maintained about Noriega and themselves. Herrera alleged publicly what had long been rumored: that Noriega had ordered the murder of his political opponent, Hugo Spadafora, back in 1985, that he had participated in a plot to assassinate Torrijos and that the election of 1984 had been rigged. Noriega says that all these charges are "totally false, the product of a sick man."

But in response to Herrera's charges, crowds took to the streets of Panama City, waving white hankerchiefs and calling for Noriega's ouster and the end of military rule. Businessmen who had never been involved in politics joined with teachers and lawyers in the so-called "Civilian Crusade," the first organized and sustained opposition movement in Panama since the imposition of military rule 19 years ago.

Sitting at the head of a long mahogony table in his plush office at a joint U.S.-Panamanian military facility called Fort Amador, Noriega explains how he believes the Americans created the present crisis. The man most responsible, he charges is Sen. Helms.

"Helms has always opposed the transfer of the canal to Panama," says Noriega, "and Helms has devoted his political life to fighting Panamanian interests."

Helms did indeed start opposing Noriega long before it became fashionable to do so, as one of his senior staffers readily affirmed to me. And the senator's staff has indeed been very active in promoting the latest Senate resolution, which passed by an almost unanimous vote.

As for why Abrams is promoting change in Panama, Noriega had this to say: "Elliott definitely has his own strategy to save himself from his own problems." He was referring to Abrams' role in the Iran-contra affair. Noriega claims that he has been told by many Americans that Abrams' position on Panama is a means of ingratiating himself with the Congress.

The State Department may have hoped that by attacking the unpopular Noriega and making its eagerness for democratization as clear in regard to Panama as it is in Nicaragua, the administration would attract liberal support for the contras.

But there is another reason for the American enthusiasm to get rid of Noriega. Looking toward the year 2000, when the United States would turn over the canal to Panama, American officials want to plan for a stable government, friendly to U.S. interests. Back in 1977 when President Carter signed the Panama Canal treaty, U.S. strategic planners had not counted on a Sandinista presence in Nicaragua. As instability has increased in the region during the last few years, the State Department and the NSC staff have concluded that anything would be better in Panama than Noriega. The Pentagon and CIA aren't so enthusiastic about the campaign against the Panamanian leader, partly because they aren't sure what would come next.

The best solution to the present crisis is probably negotiations between Noriega and the opposition. Noriega claims he is willing to negotiate with anyone without preconditions, but members of the Crusade say they will not negotiate with him until he announces a retirement date -- which he will not do.

Noriega struck a conciliatory tone in the interview, saying, about the opposition: "We have to gain their trust that they can have a fair chance in competing for the government." As for the next election, which is scheduled for 1989, he said he would agree to having computers count the votes and to representation of the opposition on the electoral tribunal -- which is not now the case.

But many Panamanians would regard an election with Noriega still at the helm as a waste of time. After all, many believe he fixed the returns of the last election and then later kicked out the appointed winner, Nicky Barletta. Asked whether he would be willing to step down before the election, he was evasive, claiming that this would lead to the destruction of the armed forces and ensuing anarchy. In reply to a question, he said he would run for president.

Noriega has other problems. According to news accounts, two federal investigations in Florida are looking into possible drug violations by Noriega, an allegation he denies. And he's angered conservatives in the United States by flirting with Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. Asked why he was dealing with Ortega if he was worried about the left, Noriega replied that he had to talk with everyone and then asked: "Why does Reagan embrace Gorbachev?"

So what should the United States do about Noriega? It could actively encourage negotiations between the two sides -- and not just stand by and wait for a disaster to occur. It could, for example, send a special U.S. emissary to cut a deal with Noriega to get him out by 1989. These steps have been discussed but not yet implemented.

The danger for the United States of a continuing stalemate is that as the situation gets worse, Noriega will play his only card -- and unleash the Cuban-backed leftist elements he has kept under control until now.

State Department officials, although concerned by the radicalization of Nicaragua and Cory Acquino's problems in the Philippines, argue that Panama will be different, that it does not have an active insurgency like the Philippines and that it will not face a threat from the left because it has such a strong middle class. But as they move to destabilize Noriega's regime, how can American officials be sure they aren't providing an opening for the left? In any event, if the United States decides to oust Noriega, it should do so quickly and decisively -- by finding a viable alternative and backing him all the way.

Lally Weymouth writes regularly about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.