IN MANNER, WORD and alleged deed, Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama so fits the stereotype of the corrupt small-country strong man that the stories about him seem almost too pat to be true. Here is an uncomely, roughneck-looking figure of whom it is said that he: beheaded a political critic and murdered the son of his predecessor as chief of Panama's armed forces; seated and unseated his country's presidents at his whim and in turn provoked, repressed and ignored popular cries for democracy; accepted huge payoffs from drug traffickers and gave bottles of Dom Perignon to thousands of guests at his daughter's wedding; worked with Fidel Castro on assorted projects involving money, drugs and arms; worked with the CIA and Pentagon to provide services over a long period; worked with Oliver North to train Nicaraguan rebels and to concoct an operation to pin a false rap on Managua for sending Soviet-bloc arms to Salvadoran guerrillas -- and more, in case you are insatiable and that is not enough.

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Gen. Noriega is his multilevel relationship with the U.S. government. It appears that his position as a rising officer and then top man in the armed forces of a country where a lot of people, money and contraband come and go made his cooperation valuable to some agencies of the United States. He was also using that position, reinforced by his American connection, to build up his personal power and, according to an indictment handed down by a Florida grand jury Thursday, to engage in criminal drug and racketeering activities for millions of dollars in payoffs. It would be interesting to know if it was consecutively or simultaneously in recent years that one part of the American government was using him for intelligence purposes while another part was trying to get him to step down to make way for democracy and yet a third part to throw him in jail. Gen. Noriega, one gathers, knows where more than a few bodies are buried.

On the basis of his past performance, you can surmise that the shrewd strongman will use his indictment to muster anti-American sentiment within a public susceptible to manipulation of this sort. But Panamanians increasingly insist on running a democracy, and there are signs that the fraternity of back-scratching army officers may be coming apart. Americans should cheer on the good guys in Panama, and meanwhile expect an authoritative answer from their own government as to how, if it is true, the U.S. government came to make arrangements of convenience with so outlandish an enemy of democracy and an accused thug and drug trafficker.