When Ronald Reagan ordered US warplanes to attack Libya on April 15, terrorism was the occasion rather than the cause. Like the electronic confetti spewed out to muddle Libyan radar screens, the terrorism issue was snow to disarm and deflect critics of American military intervention. Such intervention is an essential part of the Reagan Administration’s regimen for restoring Washington’s command of global politics.

Reports of Libyan involvement in terrorist activities stem primarily from US and Israeli intelligence agencies. Mu‘ammar Qaddafi’s regime has undertaken brutal assassination campaigns against Libyan dissidents abroad, a reprehensible but not uniquely Libyan crime. Proof of Libyan responsibility for the more notorious terrorist attacks against Israeli, European and American targets, on the other hand, has been scant. Libyan support for the Palestinian renegade Abu Nidal dates only to sometime in 1985. Concerning the December 27, 1985 massacres in Rome and Vienna airports which prompted the chain of events culminating in the April raids, even the State Department White Paper issued on January 8, 1986 felt obliged to speak of alleged Libyan involvement. [1] And in a virtuoso display of the uses of “intelligence,” European, Israeli and American “sources” now attribute to Syria responsibility for major terrorist incidents, including the April 5 Berlin disco bombing which Washington used to justify its hail of bombs on Tripoli.

The Reagan administration’s war against Qaddafi began in the first days of the administration, in January 1981. The decision to bomb Qaddafi expresses, at one level, Reagan’s obsessive fix with the man. The Libyan leader, for his part, has obliged the president’s fantasia with his flamboyant posture. Qaddafi might have come from the movie set of Death Valley Days, a photogenic and versatile villain, perfectly cast to serve as a political ideogram in the age of Reagan.

Like Reagan, Qaddafi is a man deeply attached to a few simple ideas. But Qaddafi’s ideas involve Islam and Arab nationalism — ideas which do not communicate well to the US president. On top of this, Libya is weak, the sort of adversary Reagan likes best. No matter that it was militant Lebanese Shi‘a, sworn enemies of Qaddafi, who blew up the Marine Corps barracks, who kidnapped and sometimes murdered American civilian hostages in Lebanon, or who hijacked a TWA jetliner to Beirut last June. As Woody Guthrie once sang of Pretty Boy Floyd, “Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name.”

Public Enemy Number One

There is, it is true, a history of antagonism between the US and Libya that extends back more than a decade. It is a conflict rooted in US efforts to conserve and expand its power in the Middle East and Libya’s messianic, meddling campaigns for a unified Arab political force in the region. Washington had long considered Qaddafi “disruptive,” but not a serious threat to US interests in the region and certainly not a weighty concern.

Yet Libya was on the National Security Council agenda on January 21, 1981, the day after the inauguration, and the first Reagan administration “interdepartmental foreign policy study” was to explore ways of “tying up” Qaddafi. [2] Within a few months, the administration had decided “to start with a low-key, non-violent effort to recruit reliable agents from within the Libyan exile community and begin the slow, tedious task of building a viable opposition to Qaddafi.” [3] Before the year was out, the US embargoed imports of Libyan oil. (Embargoes and economic weapons have an undeserved reputation of “not working.” In fact, they are often an important component of a serious destabilization campaign — such as Mossadeq in Iran and Allende in Chile.)

What accounts for this meteoric rise of Col. Qaddafi to the status of international public enemy number one? The key factor is the staunchly anti-Soviet world view of the Reagan administration. It is quite striking that Alexander Haig, in his memoirs, repeatedly pairs “Qaddafi and Castro” or “Libya and Cuba” as the foremost instruments of Soviet expansionism, and that he refers to Libya in no other context. The Reagan administration came to power determined to avenge the humiliation of the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis. It saw the string of reversals in the Third World — Indochina, Angola, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua and more, culminating in Iran and Afghanistan — as part of a Soviet campaign to exploit United States military weakness (both nuclear and conventional). Qaddafi’s Libya, with its Soviet military supply relationship, was a “Soviet asset” to be isolated and, if possible, eliminated.

In addition, the administration had enthusiastically adapted the Israeli usage of “terrorist” to encompass virtually all adversaries, particularly those of Middle Eastern origin. By 1981, after four years of Likud rule, there existed a small industry in Israel and the United States dedicated to the proposition that the Soviet Union, after all, was responsible for terrorism, and that resistance to Israeli or American designs was nothing but a piece of a worldwide communist-directed war against Western civilization. Experts on terrorism have supplanted experts on communism — many are the very same people. Libya’s well-advertised support for the more extremist and rejectionist Palestinian factions, and its assassination campaigns against Libyan dissidents abroad, made it a natural target in this campaign. There is also a racist component here, analogous to the “yellow peril” when China epitomized the communist threat. Today there is a swarthy mannequin (“of Middle Eastern complexion”) with interchangeable labels — Arab, Palestinian, Iranian, Muslim, Shi‘i, Libyan, fundamentalist. For the Great Communicator, terrorism facilitates the merciful end of politics.

The campaign against Qaddafi was also tied to the US military buildup in the region and Libyan support for opposition forces in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and Morocco. Egypt is a key Arab military ally and a probable staging point for US military intervention in the Arabian Peninsula. Sudan is an important component of Egyptian security, and of the political balance in the Horn of Africa. The administration saw Moroccan bases as essential relay points for any US troop excursion to the Persian Gulf. This meant political and military support for King Hassan’s regime, including its war in Western Sahara against the (sometime Libyan-backed) Polisario. Chad, south of Libya and east of Sudan, was the proxy battleground of the campaign to “put Qaddafi back in his box,” as France and the US intervened on one side and Libya on the other side of that country’s long civil war.

Getting Qaddafi

Two developments in the summer of 1985 transformed the covert and indirect routine of US-Libyan hostilities into the naked military confrontations of 1986. The first was the overthrow of Sudan’s President Ja‘far al-Numayri in April. In early July the transitional government in Khartoum announced a military pact with Libya. This was the latest in a series of events that dramatically changed the geopolitical configuration in this region. A year earlier, Libya’s surprise “unity pact” with King Hassan’s Morocco traded Libyan support for the Polisario in return for Morocco’s decision not to send troops to Chad, thus weakening the main military front against Libya. In addition, powerful currents of domestic opposition threatened those North African regimes allied with Washington — Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. The campaign to isolate Qaddafi had begun to falter, with potentially serious implications for US influence in the region. In August, Libya abruptly expelled some 23,000 Tunisian workers. Washington agreed with the Tunisian government’s charge that the move was designed to exacerbate internal Tunisian social and economic difficulties.

The second development had to do with Lebanon. This was where Americans had been taken hostage, where US Marines had been killed. All of this, of course, had been attributed to “terrorism,” thus avoiding any incriminating analysis linking US or Israeli policy to the violence tearing Lebanon apart. In June, Lebanese Shi‘i militants hijacked a TWA jetliner with 153 passengers (104 Americans) to Beirut. The hijackers killed a US Navy diver and forced Washington to pressure Israel to release hundreds of southern Lebanese taken to Israeli prison camps by the withdrawing Israeli army. In a White House strategy meeting after the crisis was resolved, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and CIA director William Casey argued that a forceful military response against “terrorism” was required. The meeting decided to draw up more precise contingency plans for military action against Libya (though the hijackers were in fact sworn enemies of Qaddafi, holding him responsible for the disappearance of Shi‘i leader Imam Musa Sadr in 1978). [4]

These developments led Reagan to sign a presidential “finding” authorizing the CIA to step up its efforts to undermine the Libyan government. The basic strategy was to lure Qaddafi into a military adventure or a terrorist exploit in order to justify an attack. In early September, McFarlane’s deputy (and successor), Adm. John Poindexter, went to Cairo to coordinate a joint military strategy.

In October, Qaddafi visited Moscow seeking a friendship treaty and more lenient terms on Libya’s debts. No treaty emerged, reportedly due to Soviet reluctance, but in November SA-5 antiaircraft missiles began arriving at the Libyan port of Misrata. Independent military analysts like Anthony Cordesman dismissed the SA-5s as “symbolic”; but Washington saw the shipment as bolstering Qaddafi’s challenge to the US and the Soviet commitment to Libya, and protested that they exceeded any “legitimate” Libyan self-defense requirements.

The situation now very much resembled that in early 1982, when Israel decided to invade Lebanon on the next available pretext. On December 27, 1985, Palestinian terrorists associated with the renegade Abu Nidal faction attacked El Al ticket counters at the Rome and Vienna airports, killing 19 persons and wounding 107. Five of those killed were Americans; following the widely reported murder of Leon Klinghoffer in the Achille Lauro incident in October, and the death of an American in the Egypt Air plane hijacked to Malta in November, the airport attacks contributed to the popular anger in the US that would sanction a military strike against Libya.

Operation Prairie Fire

A White House interagency group (NSC, State, Pentagon) immediately began selecting Libyan targets for US bombers. On December 30, Washington charged that Libya had aided the Rome and Vienna attacks. On January 1, 1986, the Pentagon sent six EA-6B electronic warfare (jamming) planes to Sigonella Air Base in Sicily. On January 6-7, the State Department declared it had identified 15 sites in Libya where terrorists are trained. The public decision was to end all commercial and financial dealings with Libya, order all remaining Americans to leave by the end of the month, and solicit European support for a total embargo of Libya. Secretary of State Shultz and Defense Secretary Weinberger continued their long-standing public debate over the merits of military retaliation — a much overblown dispute which, as Weinberger correctly pointed out, concerned nuances rather than fundamentals.

Behind the scenes, the US military machine prepared for action. Detailed planning for the April 15 attacks were drawn up at this point. Flight operations close to the Gulf of Sidra were stepped up, and the USS Saratoga was ordered to the Mediterranean, bringing to three the number of carrier task forces there. Reagan also ordered additional money and manpower into CIA operations against Qaddafi and sent another high-level military delegation to Egypt to plan joint moves.

Once the three carrier task forces were in place, attack plans proceeded. On March 14, Reagan authorized naval exercises in the Gulf of Sidra, code-named Operation Prairie Fire, to provoke a Libyan attack and justify a US response. One official expressed the main worry of the administration: “There was always the danger Qaddafi wouldn’t fire.” [5] Ten days later, a 30-ship task force began “freedom of navigation” exercises in the Gulf of Sidra “close” to Libya’s 12-mile territorial waters limit recognized by Washington. Libya’s sole SA-5 missile site fired “at least four” missiles harmlessly at false radar signals from EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes. [6] US warplanes blasted the antiaircraft site. Two Libyan missile patrol boats were destroyed by missiles and cluster bombs. The next day US warplanes attacked two more patrol boats and struck the radar site at Sirt again. These attacks allowed the US forces to determine the location and frequency of Libyan radars and their missile ranges, information which was critical for the “flawless” April 15 bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi.

When a bomb in a West Berlin disco on April 5 killed an American GI, Washington claimed vague intercepted messages between Tripoli and Libya’s East Berlin embassy as “irrefutable evidence” that Libya was responsible. On April 8, Reagan authorized “retaliatory” attacks on Libya. The next day, in a manner reminiscent of Menachem Begin’s dismissal of Palestinians as “two-legged beasts,” Reagan publicly referred to Qaddafi as “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Early in the morning of April 15 (Libyan time), the US attacked numerous “terrorist” sites in Tripoli and Benghazi. Qaddafi himself was a key target. As one US official put it days before the attack, “he is regarded as unstable, a person who would disintegrate under stress. Our policy is to hasten that, if we can.” [7] “We hoped we would get him,” was how one raid planner put it afterwards. [8] Ever attentive to niceties, the administration had its legal counselors “advise” that the attack on Qaddafi’s residence could be considered “self-defensive” and thus not in violation of the law prohibiting assassination of a foreign leader. [9] The National Security Council even drafted a statement for the White House to use describing Qaddafi’s anticipated demise as “fortuitous.” [10] According to Libya, 37 people were killed, including Qaddafi’s infant daughter, and 93 were injured, including two of his young sons. In the days after the raid, the Voice of America Arabic service beamed into Libya imaginative reports of anti-government moves in the Libyan military.

What happens next? For several weeks, the USS Coral Sea continued flight operations off Libya’s coast “for surveillance purposes and to test [Libya’s] reactions.” [11] Just in case reactions are not sufficiently submissive, the Pentagon confirms that Libyan targets have been entered into computerized maps of submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. [12]

Syria represents a more complicated calculation, as Reagan and his cohorts trip over the leaks and accusations of the last few weeks. Washington now carefully sidesteps charges of Syrian-supported terrorism. “It’s one thing to mess around with Libya,” one diplomat said, but Syria “is a serious country.” [13] Much more likely is a certain division of labor: As Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a Washington audience recently, the “global responsibilities” of the US lent a logic to the attack on Libya, while Syria’s proximity to Israel made Damascus its “first priority.” [14] The Reagan administration will surely show the required “understanding” of such an Israeli move, especially now that it has enthusiastically embraced Israeli counter-terrorist doctrine.

Allies and Adversaries

The bombing raids of April 15 also have coordinates on the larger map of US relations with its Soviet adversary and its NATO allies. The bombing was a way of delivering the message of the so-called Reagan Doctrine to its Moscow address: the “correlation of forces” between the two powers, as a result of the American military buildup of strategic and interventionary forces, allows Washington to act forcefully and unilaterally against Soviet allies, even those in close proximity to the Soviet Union. It is of a piece with the brazen March 13 intrusion of US warships into Soviet territorial waters off the Crimean coast “to test Soviet defenses.” Robert McFarlane, until recently President Reagan’s National Security Council director, previewed the real rationale for the Libya attack in an interview shortly before it occurred. “The administration has concluded,” he said, “that the main competition with the Soviet Union over the next 15 years will occur in the developing countries.” “It is central to the geostrategic balance,” he went on, “that we win one.” “The win,” said McFarlane “ought to be in this hemisphere,” but most important is “winning one first.” [15]

Libya was a convenient episode to help overcome the fact that popular opposition to the “Reagan Doctrine” is strongest regarding “this hemisphere” — in other words, Nicaragua. “Because Congress does not agree,” said one Pentagon official, “it is hard to have follow through.” [16] Libya, by contrast, is militarily weak and has no political defenders in the US. Clearly, Reagan expected acclaim for the Libyan “win” to translate into support for his Nicaraguan contras. In a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation a week after the attack, Reagan accused the Nicaraguan government of “trying to build a Libya on our doorstep.” [17] The contras’ private-sector enthusiasts here flooded the airwaves with the message that “here is a terrorist nest you can do something about — support the president’s $100 million for the contras.” Truly, a picture of Daniel Ortega and Mu‘ammar Qaddafi together should be worth a thousand cue cards.

The Libya mission also had a message for the NATO allies: “Resurgent America” will encourage those political forces in Europe which exhibit due enthusiasm for its confrontationist policies. This is the thread that runs from Bitburg to Bab al-‘Aziziyya. Diana Johnstone aptly compared the Tokyo economic summit meeting to the Munich conference of 1938 for its similar readiness to sanction aggression against a “faraway country about which we know nothing.” [18] This reflects a European desire to forestall further US military attacks in their backyard, rather than any accord with Reagan’s belligerence.

Europeans are surely aware of the strong currents in the Reagan administration who have advocated a “shift of the center of gravity of US foreign policy” in response to Europe’s “self-centered” lack of support for Washington’s “world responsibilities.” [19] Five years ago, Adm. William Crowe, now head of the Joint Chiefs, commented that “It’s not necessary to extend [NATO’s] boundaries. But it may be necessary to ask NATO members in addition to the US to send forces to the Middle East.” [20] So French, British and Italian troops joined the US Marines’ “peacekeeping force” in Beirut.

Now Libya has exacerbated differences within NATO. The Tokyo summit produced a retroactive endorsement of the raid, but actions still speak louder than communiques. Commenting on the refusal of various states to cooperate in the attack, and the political storm that Britain’s cooperation provoked, Henry Kissinger charged that Europe “challenges a concept of global defense.” NATO is not really to defend Europe against a Soviet military attack, Kissinger points out, but to enforce a US-led condominium over the globe. He proposes a “careful strategic study” of current deployments, which will reach the “unavoidable” conclusion that “some of the American forces now in Europe would contribute more effectively to global defense if they were redeployed as strategic reserves based in the United States and able to be moved to world trouble spots.” [21]

The core motivation for the attack on Libya can be located in the intersection of domestic and alliance politics on the one hand and confrontationist policies towards the Soviet Union on the other. But any crisis of this magnitude is the expression of forces and relationships in the Middle East region as well. Thirty years ago, in 1956, the British-French-Israeli attack on Suez marked the final transition from European to American hegemony in the region. In 1967, Israel’s defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan set the stage for the military relationship with the US that has been the single most important feature of US Middle East policy ever since, and especially in the Reagan era.

Do the events of the last six months mark a similar transition? The Israeli raid on Tunis in October, and now the US attacks on Libya, have drawn North Africa into the vortex of violence that has traumatized the societies of the Levant. “Victory” over Libya has led to the forced evacuations of Americans fearing “another Tehran” in Sudan and further mayhem in Lebanon, to clashes between troops and students in Jordan and Tunisia, and to plausible threats of unrest in Egypt.

The attacks on Libya also testify to the close alignment of US policy in the region with Israeli interests and strategies. Further narrowing US policy options in the region, this identification appears to undermine US relations with most Arab states. “From one end of the Arab world to another, US diplomats privately express their misgivings about serving a policy that puts at risk their own lives as well as what they perceive as American national interests in the region,” according to one report soon after the bombings. “The way things are going, the US might as well close its embassies in the Arab world and let those Arabs who still want to do business conduct it in Washington,” said one Western diplomat in the area. [22]

The alignment of US and Israeli strategies, built on more than two decades of increasingly close ties between the military and intelligence establishments, was once camouflaged by the articulate presence of policy makers who gave some priority to good relations with key Arab states as well. Now the Reagan administration has emblazoned the US-Israeli “strategic partnership” across every portal. It is Secretary of State George Shultz, whose previous position as president of Bechtel made him the Arab corporate connection par excellence, who wants “to build institutional arrangements so that eight years from now, if there is a secretary of state who is not positive about Israel, he will not be able to overcome the bureaucratic relationship between Israel and the US that we have established.” [23]

The rationale behind this tight military and strategic relationship, when it was first designed in the Nixon-Kissinger years and when it was further codified and elaborated in the memorandum of strategic accord signed in November 1983 in Washington, was that a belligerent Israel could best advance US interests in the Middle East and forestall direct US military intervention. The weakness and disarray of the Arab states, especially those closest to Washington, has allowed the first premise to go unchallenged, so far. But the bombing of Libya, like the earlier adventure in Lebanon, demonstrates that this policy will lead to more and not less US military intervention, simply to respond to increasing attacks against American targets by forces largely outside the control of the states in the region, forces created out of the violence of imposed solutions.


[1] Department of State, “Libya Under Qadhafi: A Pattern of Aggression,” Special Report 138, January 1986.
[2] Edward Haley, Qaddafi and the United States Since 1969 (New York: Praeger, 1984), p. 274.
[3] Newsweek, May 14, 1981.
[4] The Pentagon concluded then that a US military conquest of Libya would require at least six divisions, or 90,000 troops.
[5] Middle East Policy Survey, April 4, 1986.
[6] Weinberger claimed “numerous corroborative evidence and sightings,” but did not disclose how US forces knew Libya had fired any missiles, and there was confusion as to how many had been fired. All accounts came out of the Pentagon. “This is a completely different thing from the Gulf of Tonkin,” said one official. “It’s very easy to monitor when they launch missiles, especially when all your electronic warfare assets are focused on one area.” Washington Post, March 25, 1986.
[7] Philadelphia Inquirer, April 11, 1986.
[8] Washington Post, April 18, 1986.
[9] Washington Post, April 16, 1986.
[10] Washington Post, April 18, 1986.
[11] Associated Press, April 30, 1986.
[12] CBS News, May 5, 1986.
[13] Washington Post, May 8, 1986.
[14] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, May 8, 1986.
[15] Franz Schurman cites this US News and World Report interview in his Pacific News Service column, April 19, 1986.
[16] New York Times, March 27, 1986.
[17] New York Times, April 23, 1986.
[18] In These Times, May 14-20, 1986.
[19] Remarks of then Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, Washington Post, February 1, 1984.
[20] New York Times, October 5, 1981.
[21] Washington Post, May 13, 1986. Kissinger also charged that European governments had “permitted the cracks to become unnecessarily wide by taking so passive an attitude toward the radical peace organizations and militant church groups that are so ready to mount anti-American demonstrations. Too many European governments have sought to purchase domestic tranquility by catering to the myth that they are restraining the immature, bellicose Americans. As a result, in crises European public opinion often takes on the qualities of a Frankenstein monster driving governments to ever greater dissociation from the United States. In its appeal for restraint the European Community seemed to put the United States and Libya on the same level.”
[22] Washington Post, April 20, 1986.
[23] Quoted by American Israel Public Affairs Committee Executive Director Thomas Dine in an April 6, 1986 speech. Mideast Observer, April 15, 1986.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Mad Dogs and Presidents," Middle East Report 140 (May/June 1986).

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