ITS ALL TOO TYPICAL of the self-indulgence with which the Panama issue has been debated that so little consideration was initially given to Panama's likely and legitimate objections to treaty changes being wrought in Washington. With State Department approval, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 14 to 1 last Friday to incorporate as a new artcle in the treaties the earlier Carter-To/rrijos executive language spelling out American defense and transit rights after 2000. Only when Gen. Omar Torrijos raised the question with visiting senators did it dawn on Americans that adding a new article would compel Panama to go the risky route of submitting the treaties to another plebiscite.
It is interesting to see why the treaties, which won 66 per cent of the vote last October, would probably not survive a second plebiscite, or so the best judge, Gen. Torrijos, believes. Part of the explanation lies in discontents of other sorts with general -- discontents that surface quite easily in the freer atmosphere he has allowed to flourish to persuade Americans he's no dictator. Another part lies in growing nationalistic resentment against the very concessions he's accepted to make the treaties acceptable to the United States. Can Americans envisage, for instance, granting a foreign country the right of military intervention, Or hosting wave after wave of Panamanian legislators come to check out whether the United States was fit for their diplomatic company?
Strongman Torrijos has even feel it necessary to say that if the treaties are approved hell step down. By this offer he evidely means to disarm AMericans who complaints of having to do business with a dictator, and to win support for the treaties from Panamanians who object to his personal rule. if he were in fact a dictator, of course, he would have engineered a larger margin in the first plebiscite, and the treaties would not be facing rejection in the second, and he would not be considering stepping down. Some pro-treaty Ameriacn privately wish he were a dictator!
On Monday the Foreigh relations Committee corrected its Friday error and agreed to work the Torrijos-Carter language into exisiting treaty articles, rather than write a new one. Although the practical effect would presumably be the same, panamanian authorities apparently have concluded that this for mulation would avoid the need for a second plebiscite. That's a determination -- however difficult it may be for some senators to comprehend -- that is up to the Panamanian government to make, according to its own reading of what is politically tolerable in Panama. As it heads into floor debate, however, the Senate must keep in mind that no further assaults on Panamanian nationalism can be condoned. The substance of the American demands has been met. It is thoughtful of the majority and minority leaders to offer their distinguished colleagues the opportunity to strut and posture and show their constituents how forceful and vigilant they can be in stiffening the treaties. But this opportunity must be exercised within narrow limits. It cannot be taken as license for the sort of further arm-twisting that would put the treaties back into jeopardy in Panama.