IT WAS 1964 when riots in Panama began alerting Americans to the fact thay they could no longer be sure of enjoying continued smooth access through the Panama Canal unless they first obtained the consent of the Panamanians. At the time the idea of seeking Panamanian consent was regarded as liberal, even radical, and it got nowhere. Some years of global instruction in the tenacity and legitimacy of local nationalism were required before substantial numbers of Americans came to see the wisdom of acting by diplomacy in Panama to ensure the transit that might otherwise be jeopardized by unrest or violence.

As you will see from the debate excerpted on the opposite page, that erstwhile "liberal" idea has since become the centerpiece of the conservative argument for the new canal treaties. Liberals say the treaties would be good for our diplomacy, our good name and perhaps our soul. Most, but by no means all, conservatives say the treaties are good for our shipping and our Navy: If things get hot, it'll be better to have the Panamanians with us rather than against us. That argument is as unassailable now as it was 14 years ago. The naysayers, unable to answer it, are reduced to imagining far-fetched contingencies, instead.

On the judgement that at long last there are enough votes for ratification in the Senate, the treaties are expected to be brought up for floor debate within the next two weeks. The Majority Leader is aboard, having won from Panama certain important assurances on human rights. The Minority Leader sounds as if he is also aboard, having won from Panama and from the Carter administration their mutual agreement to add formally to the treaties language granting the United States 1) the right of intervention after the year 2000 and 2) priority of emergency passage. Given the capacity of the canal issue to evoke mind-numbing emotion, it would be unwise to rule out efforts to add other, more mischievous amendments. But if the head counts of the administration and Senate leadership are accurate, the treaties are on the way home.

We have never felt it would be offensive to American nationalism for Panamanian nationalism to be respected at the same time. Surely, though, that has been the gut feeling of many who have resisted the new treaties. William Buckley strikes to the heart of this matter when he suggests (across the page) that the United States must be able to distinguish between large issues of principle in which a stance must be taken, and lesser issues of convenience in which flexibility should be the rule.Panama is a lesser issue. Compromise, not confrontation, is the appropriate way to deal with it, and that is what American diplomacy, as shaped in the end by American politics, has done.