Tahar Ben Jelloun, the Moroccan-born French novelist, will do just fine as a caricature of a Frenchman, no matter what his place of birth. Having just won France's top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, Ben Jelloun was asked what it's like to create in two different cultures. "My wife is Arabic and my mistress is French, and I maintain a relationship of betrayal with both of them," he answered. Oh dear, what would Dear Abby say?

The answer, I think, would be essentially American -- something reproachful, something extolling morality. These are American traits, and they both shape and infect our foreign policy. The French recently arranged a swap -- at least two of their hostages held in Beirut for one Iranian held in France. That kind of a deal, reeking of cynicism, is the sort of arrangement we Americans have shunned. Instead, the government has enunciated a "no concessions" policy in dealing with terrorists.

This is crowd-pleasing rhetoric and, indeed, it helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. A frustrated electorate wanted something done about American hostages being held in Iran. And it was Reagan who insisted that something really could be done -- something consistent with American values. Somehow the hostages could be freed without conceding anything to the people holding them.

This naive policy was backed up by exaggerated, bellicose rhetoric. In 1985, for instance, President Reagan called both Iran and Libya "outlaw states run by the strangest collection of misfits, looney tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich." Similar statements were made by other administration officials, notably Reagan's first secretary of state, Alexander Haig. He suggested that military firmness would make terrorism evaporate. We would "go to the source" -- wherever that is. For terrorists, this rhetoric did nothing but enhance their importance.

There is no denying the utility of a good punch in the mouth. The bombing of Libya seems to have given Moammar Gadhafi pause. For the moment, Libya is quiescent. Indeed, there's been a general diminution of Middle East-related terrorism all over the world. Americans now seem more fearful of the cost of a cab ride from a European airport to the hotel than they are of being killed in the airport itself. This is progress.

But the cynicism of the French is also instructive. They, too, parroted U.S. rhetoric when it came to dealing with terrorists, but, as Prof. Henry Higgins observed about the French, the sound of what they say is more important than the literal meaning of it. They did deal with terrorists -- and successfully. Not only that, France seems to have worked a deal that will culminate in the restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran.

Such an arrangement -- an amoral bargain with an immoral regime -- would probably be denounced in the United States as un-American, as was the swap that brought Nicholas Daniloff home from Moscow. But, really, there is nothing wrong with it -- and other precedents exist. Terrorism experts Brian Michael Jenkins and Robin Wright point out the United States paid the Barbary Pirates a $1 million ransom for the release of 115 American sailors -- one sixth of the federal budget in 1795. We have done what we had to do.

This is what the French did. The United States, on the other hand, went further than it had to when it sold arms to Iran in an effort to gain the release of our hostages. The French bargain was in kind -- a cynical swap of people for people. In the scheme of things, France's concessions were modest, the United States' excessive and a repudiation of pledges we had made to other countries. In their negotiations, the French left their rhetoric at the door and dealt with the world as it exists -- not as it should be.

For the United States, terrorism is a problem for which there are no good solutions. Should it, for instance, pressure Kuwait to free the terrorists it has jailed in exchange for Americans being held in Beirut? The answer is that there is no answer. But the eight Americans still held hostage suggest that the policy of no concessions coupled with naive posturing is no answer either.

The French government has pointed the way. Like a man with both a wife and a mistress, it appreciates the necessity of cynicism. By saying one thing and doing another, France got its hostages home. What seems like "a relationship of betrayal" turns out not to have been one at all. France's primary loyalty was to the hostages and to them France was always true.