Consider for a moment how images of national character flip in and out of political focus as the world whirs by.

When, say, France, a longtime ally, declines to let our planes overfly on the way to attacking Libya, many of us rush to a judgment arising not simply from the event but from an underlying jaundiced view of the French national character.

Now switch to Moscow's Great Hall last Sunday for Vladimir Horowitz's triumphant homecoming recital. The pianist plays, and the live audience of Russians and the television audience of Americans become one in homage to the artist and the muse. The image of Soviets as adversary entirely fades out as the camera catches a tear coursing down the cheek of a gray-haired Russian who is listening in total absorption to Schumann's "Traumerei."

A moment -- surely a passing moment -- of tension makes us revert to a stereotyped view of France. A moment -- again, surely a passing moment -- of magic in Moscow unhooks us from a stereotyped view of the Soviet Union.

Is there anything more here than the unsurprising affirmation -- the one that Soviet-American cultural exchange is deliberately built on -- that politics stirs passion while music hath charms to soothe the savage breast? Could it be that the negative judgment of the Soviet Union, the one from which Horowitz briefly unhooked us, is as misleading as the negative judgment of France?

All of us have to keep checking -- and not simply out of an abstract devotion to truth. We can see with special clarity in respect to Libya that our views of character, national and individual, can transform what would otherwise be cool political equations. It is precisely the view that Qaddafi's Libya is no "ordinary" calculating terrorist establishment like Assad's Syria or Khomeini's Iran that turned American policy on its present course of confrontation with the "mad dog" of Tripoli.

So we had better have an accurate view of the character of nations and -- even trickier terrain -- of ethnic and religious communities (Araby, Islam) and of their leaders.

In respect to the Soviet Union, some hopeful and sometimes glib things are said about our common humanity and interest in peace and about an alleged American propensity to "demonize" or "dehumanize" the Soviets in order to justify our own flawed policies. But the country that the United States finally must deal with remains the country of Soviet power, not a place typified by an afternoon's splendid diversion. A better future has to be sought not by awaiting an awakening on one side or the other but by careful slogging. Alas, Horowitz can't help.

By the same token, the France that the United States deals with is a constant friend with a shared democracy and civilization, not a place characterized by an occasional line of dubious policy. Better relations are to be sought by the tried and true Western method of talking straight to each other in the confidence that family feeling can contain the inevitable policy differences.

And who are the Libyans, the Arabs? The difficulty is that the United States does not share a long and engrossing rivalry, as with the Soviet Union, or a long association and partnership, as with France. Those are both learning experiences. As a nation, we can claim to know something about the Soviets and the French. Anyway, we cannot claim not having had a good opportunity to learn.

With Arabs, certainly with Libyans, it's different. Though individuals among us may know a good deal, what counts is our broad national experience, and that is relatively shallow. There has not been the same deep penetration over time by emigration, culture and business of all sorts, the same relatively informed society-wide debate. Not that consensus, least of all wisdom, always emerges from such a debate, but a somewhat reassuring sense of the plausibility of different courses usually does.

We cannot succumb to the trap of assuming that acts hostile to us spring from cultural sources that are legitimate, even though we may not be too sure just what they are. That way lies self-disarmament. At the same time we have to wonder if the thinness of our national involvement with Arabs does not leave us vulnerable, especially in hot moments, to acting on views of national character that are too little corrected by the kinds of intense engagement we have had elsewhere.