PRESIDENT Obama is lucky. The scandal over the release of convicted terrorist bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, which is melting down the political class in Britain and Scotland, offers powerful lessons on how not to deal with rogue dictators.
If, that is, Obama and his team are willing to listen.
Deciding to send the man convicted of killing 270 people on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 home to Libya "on compassionate grounds" was (to paraphrase the French statesman Talleyrand) worse than an outrage. It's turning out to be a major political blunder.
It may bring down the Labor government of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It certainly signals an end to the career of the justice secretary who signed Megrahi's release, Kenny MacAskill.
Right now the Obama administration is contemplating sending a US envoy to North Korea to open direct talks with Moammar Khadafy's dictatorial twin, Kim Jong Il. It's itching to do the same with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. First, the Obama team needs to treat the Megrahi case as a crash course in international relations and the War on Terror.
Lesson No. 1: Personal diplomacy is a sham.
By sleeping with her Roman enemies, Queen Cleopatra thought she could save Egypt from their imperial clutches. Neville Chamberlain thought he could charm Hitler into loosening his grip on Czechoslovakia and secure "peace for our time." FDR thought he could do the same with Joe Stalin. More recently, George W. Bush thought he could peer into the soul of Vladmir Putin and spare us from a resurgent arrogant Russia. They all failed.
Brown imagined that, by buttering up Khadafy at the July G-8 summit, releasing Megrahi and then sending Prince Andrew on a goodwill trip to Tripoli, he could make an ally of the Libyan dictator. After Megrahi was freed, Brown even sent a "Dear Moammar" letter urging Khadafy not to give the dying terrorist a hero's welcome. Khadafy did it anyway, with crowds cheering and cameras rolling.
Brown forgot that dictators are motivated by two things only: fear of losing power and the desire for more. Khadafy abandoned his search for nuclear weapons after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 only because he feared that what happened to Saddam was about to happen to him.
In power politics, leaders follow their interests -- not the other way around. Obama will need to keep this in mind when dealing with Kim and Ahmadinejad.
Lesson No. 2: Don't confuse cowardice with compassion.
Brown and his Scottish allies assumed that letting Megrahi die with dignity at home, and defying US outrage over the release, would earn them points with world opinion. Instead, it has earned them the world's contempt.
Far from helping Brown out, Khadafy and his son have also leaked to the press stories of how Megrahi's release was "always on the negotiating table" in exchange for Libyan oil and gas concessions. Brown, MacAskill & Co. look not only craven but like calculating hypocrites.
As a commodity, high-mindedness comes at a deep discount on the world stage. This is also true in the War on Terror, which is now Obama's war.
Announcing that a special prosecutor is going to probe possible CIA "torture" and abuse may give the impression that America is cleaning up its image as a superpower that cares. Every al-Qaeda operative who reads the Internet and every thinking Arab diplomat will see it for what it is, however -- a PR ploy to shore up Obama's faltering liberal base at home.
So if Obama and his team think they can win world opinion by punishing Americans while treating terrorists with tea and sympathy, they need to have a long chat with MacAskill and Brown.
Lesson No. 3: Terrorists are in prison for a reason.
It's when they're let out that they become a serious problem -- whether it's Megrahi or Guantanamo prisoners who return to the battlefield. The Gitmo detainees need to stay right where they are, far away from the clutch of attorneys general with political agendas or governments determined to look compassionate.
Lesson No. 4: It's time to re-visit the death penalty for terrorism.
This is one place where "death panels" will be appropriate. If Megrahi had been executed after his conviction in 2001, officials in London and Edinburgh would be sleeping soundly at night instead of facing parliamentary investigations and resignation. Khadafy would still have no nuclear-weapons program, and Prince Andrew could still join in the celebrations in honor of the dictator's 40th anniversary of seizing power this October.
Instead, Queen Elizabeth's son is going to have to make new plans -- maybe a wreath-laying ceremony in Lockerbie?
Either way, the lesson is clear. Like pirates on the high seas, today's terrorists qualify as "enemies of humanity" and deserve the same age-old punishment.
The fear is that execution will elevate them to the status of martyrs. Dead martyrs, however, are always preferable to living ones -- which is what we have now, both at Gitmo and with Megrahi.
The Megrahi case demonstrates what happens when the West decides to indulge its conscience in the face of the enemy. It also shows what happens when a democratic political leader thinks his most potent weapon in dealing with a dictator is the power of persuasion rather than the power of force.
Let's not make the same mistake with North Korea and Iran.