In the end, political resolve comes down to a question of character. When the leaders of the French government flinched from allowing American warplanes to fly over French territory en route to Libya, thus condemning American airmen to all the dangers attendant with a military mission made 2,400 miles more arduous, they showed their smallness. In the pinch, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher displayed nobility; these Frenchmen revealed flawed character.

I wonder if they would have allowed our planes to fly over a more precisely designated route, leapfrogging such places as Ardennes, Suresnes, Rhone, the Lorraine Valley, St. James, St. Laurent and Epinal. All contain military cemeteries where American men lie face up, forever gazing into the skies of France. Surely these men would not object if they were to see once more the underbelly of an American bomber flying far from home to defend the values of the West.

These values will always offend dictators, whether they are the authors of "Mein Kampf," the "Green Book" or whatever other collection of claptrap esotery they compose to warrant their lusts. Against savagery civilization will always need leaders who stand ready.

There have been times when French leaders have shown the requisite readiness. In October 1962, when the United States squared off against the Soviet Union and risked nuclear war over Soviet missiles in Cuba, Britain's Prime Minister Harold Macmillan wavered upon receiving President Kennedy's call. President Charles de Gaulle did not. When Kennedy's emissary, Dean Acheson, sought his cooperation, the Frenchman replied, "If there is a war, France will be with you"; and when Soviet Ambassador Serge Vinogradov belabored him with warnings that he risked the nuclear destruction of France, de Gaulle broke a stony silence, rose from behind his desk, extended a hand in farewell, and said, "Helas, Monsieur l'Ambassadeur, nous mourirons ensemble! Au revoir, Monsieur l'Ambassadeur." (Alas, Mr. Ambassador, we'll die together! Goodbye, Mr. Ambassador.)

The regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi has been an outlaw regime. It might have carried on commerce with Western Europe and other civilized countries, but in the more important province of moral values, it has been hostile to all that they stand for and have stood for during the better part of modern times. Qaddafi's kind of far-flung violence is a threat to the moral order established by the West over decades. Qaddafi and like-minded Middle Eastern dictators have made it a matter of policy to murder innocents, even those who have had nothing to do with government or politics.

All the arguments for avoiding our military action against Qaddafi have been heard before. We recognize that some Europeans have profited in commerce with him. It is apparent that some were more exposed to his cowardly terrorists than were most Americans. But the fact remains that he has been a firebrand whose record is one of ever- growing belligerency, violence and cruelty. As Westerners grew more "reasonable," Qaddafi grew more horrible.

The Europeans who expressed disapproval of Washington's strike against Qaddafi must face the grisly fact that as they prospered in commerce with him they contributed to the destruction of the humane values of their civilization. If they are in fact more exposed to terrorists today, experience shows they will be still more exposed tomorrow. Reason conduces to the conclusion that it is both moral and prudent to do today what will with greater difficulty have to be done tomorrow.

Our attack on Libya was but another chapter in the defense of our civilization. It will not be the last. It should have been made by an international force composed of the major victims of Middle Eastern terror. In French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's remarks after the attack there was just a hint that he recognized this. That would be a good omen.

In this country those of us who defend NATO are sorely pressed by others. They cite frequent European abandonment of us when we needed them and call for an end to our participation in NATO. Then we shall simply bury our dead under American skies.