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WHAT THE U.S. SHOULD DO TO HELP REBUILD PANAMA

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When the United States invaded Panama, it acquired more than just a more democratic and responsible government in a strategically important neighbor.

Washington also acquired a new dependent exerting a new drain on America's foreign aid resources.Just how big a drain became clearer this week when the new civilian government of Panama estimated it would cost between $600 million and $800 million to repair the damage from the invasion and the U.S. economic sanctions that preceded it.

Those figures are considerably higher than Washington's own preliminary estimates.

As Washington tries to reconcile the differences between the two sets of figures and start repairing the damage, a few guidelines should be kept firmly in mind.

One such guideline is that there are sharp limits to the damage in Panama for which the United States can reasonably be held responsible. By all means, Washington should expedite efforts to lift economic sanctions and restore Panama to the status it enjoyed before the U.S. imposed the embargo, a step that is already being taken. Likewise, let's also help rebuild facilities destroyed by military action during the invasion.

But much of the recent damage in Panama was self-inflicted by looters who reportedly were directly involved in damaging the more than 70 percent of Panama City stores destroyed in recent days. If Panama is to be restored to its former position as a responsible member of the international community, its citizens must be held accountable for their own actions.

Another guideline is that in helping to rebuild Panama, Washington should tap Americans' rich source of idealism by relying on volunteers as much as possible. An impractical suggestion? Not at all. Already, the U.S. Army is being flooded with offers from volunteers who want to go to Panama and help restore battered public services.

Still another guideline is that the rebuilding of Panama should be a multilateral effort, rather than a chore shouldered exclusively by Washington. After all, other nations besides the United States benefit from the use of the Panama Canal. Likewise, other nations besides the United States stopped doing business with Panama because they didn't trust Gen. Noriega, the strongman ousted by the invasion. Japan, to mention a leading example, is one of them.

Finally, though the damage to Panama took only days to inflict in the case of the invasion and months to inflict in the case of the economic sanctions, that damage will take years to repair. What's needed, then, is a multinational Little Marshall Plan directed at Panama.