IT TURNS OUT that Gen. Manuel Noriega, behind the fac ade of his defiance as strong man of Panama, has been exploring a way to release his country to the democratic proprieties. The fates seem to have designed the quest on the model of the classic palindrome (something that reads the same forward and backward): ''A man, a plan, a canal -- Panama.'' The man is Gen. Noriega, who ousted the president he had elected by fraud and then picked a pliant new one. The plan is a scheme for transition to effective civilian rule put forward by the general's erstwhile comrade, Jose Blandon. The canal is the great engineering wonder that is at once the defining national asset of Panama and the guarantee of American attention to its affairs.

Mr. Blandon, as consul general in New York, seems to have received the general's authorization to open contacts with the Panamanian opposition and others. At some point Gen. Noriega reportedly thought better of the project and fired Mr. Blandon, but the latter remains in the leadership of the ruling party -- the party that fronts for the armed forces. Even if this plan falters, the logic of the situation calls for something like it. Gen. Noriega cannot possibly provide Panama the steady business climate and the opening for political self-expression that the country's economic and social maturity demands. He apparently has it in mind, by the way, to trade his stepping down for relief from the very heavy allegations (corruption, drug trafficking, etc.) that have been directed against him.

The design and operation of any process meant to dislodge Gen. Noriega must necessarily be the work of Panamanians. The United States, however, by virtue of its strategic interest in the canal and its looming position in the hemisphere, cannot avoid being more than an innocent bystander. It was apparently kept informed of the Blandon proceedings, and it made an effort not to react to them in a way that might tempt Gen. Noriega to take up anew a role in which he has unfortunately had some success in the past -- as a patriot defending Panamanian honor against the colossus of the North. American officials have been trying to isolate this unfortunate figure and to persuade him to leave office. That last remains the best service to his country that Gen. Noriega has left to perform.