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A White House official was asked the other day if President Bush can afford the "wimp" response of dealing with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, referred to by Bush aides as a "thug."

The spokesman winced. The term "wimp" is unwelcome around the Bush White House. It evokes unpleasant memories of campaign charges of Bush as a mindless Ronald Reagan spear-carrier for eight years. Furthermore, Bush thinks he's dispelled all that talk.But as sure as there are "wherefores" and "heretofores" in the murky clauses of the Panama Canal treaties, the world will put the "wimp" tag on Bush if he fails to oust Noriega. Quickly.

It's a no-win situation for the new president.

If Bush goes muscular and physically tries to push the man Panamanians call "Pineapple Face" out of power, the president will be denounced by the democratic leaders he is pressuring to support the United States in getting rid of Noriega.

Panama's president-in-exile, Eric Delvalle, has warned Bush not to use military force as have most of the Latin American democratic leaders and former President Carter. Carter said such an action would play right into Noriega's hands.

It is too late for a covert kidnap attempt. Noriega is well guarded by his loyal Panamanian Defense Force members, whom Bush futilely hoped would see their folly and revolt against the strongman Bush once supported.

Noriega probably could be encouraged to leave if the indictment in Florida against him on drug trafficking charges were to be dropped and he could be assured of being a free, rich man for life.

But Bush promised during his campaign he would not do that. Rejecting the advice of some members of his own party, he repeated that pledge after he accused Noriega of "bullying" and stealing the Panamanian election.

With the eyes of the world on him, Bush is right. He would not be aiding the democratic cause if he used the power of the presidency to have charges he has said he thinks are legitimate thrown out against Noriega. His new "crime package" would be dead the minute it left the printers.

What Bush wants is for the force of world opinion - based in part on those grisly pictures of Noriega's thugs beating up opposition candidates - to isolate Noriega.

As Panama strangles for lack of foreign capital and shrivels from a paucity of normal relations with other countries, Bush sees Noriega finally bowing to the will of the Panamanian people and departing.

Sooner or later, Noriega will be gone. This is not another Fidel Castro, able to thumb his nose at the United States for years to come.

But for Bush, the exit may come too late.

The world is waiting to see what he does. Recalling the U.S. ambassador, stockading women and children, dispatching 1,881 more soldiers to Panama are not actions that take the breath away.

Bush may gain the goal but lose the crowd.