In this article, James Kirchick explores the building international pressure to end the ghastly 42-year reign of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Despite widespread political hesitation, this would not be the first time the United States takes military action against Gaddafi's regime. Citing similar historical events, James Kirchick draws a compelling comparative analysis of the current situation.
Off The Fence: Libya and the Lessons of '86
James Kirchick | World Affairs
March 10, 2011
Three weeks into Libya’s civil war, debate is raging over what, if any, military action the United States should take to help end the 42-year reign of Muammar el-Qaddafi. Much of the opposition to American intervention is based on tactical concerns. Echoing the dissuasive congressional testimony of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who outlined the costs of enforcing a no-fly zone over the country, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that intervention “would be a potentially costly distraction for the U.S. military.” In the halls of power, however, the crux of resistance appears to be based on doubts over the very legitimacy of American interference. In a piece that relied heavily on sources around President Obama, the New York Times reported that, “of most concern” to the president “is the perception that the United States would once again be meddling in the Middle East, where it has overturned many a leader, including Saddam Hussein.”
There are certainly valid reasons to oppose more robust action against Qaddafi, and any use of arms against his regime should be seriously debated. Yet it’s important to remember that, were the US to engage in a military action against his regime it would not be for the first time. As skeptics question the legitimacy of using force against the Qaddafi regime, it is instructive to recall the history of America’s military encounters with the tyrant of Tripoli.
At 1:40 a.m. on April 5, 1986, a bomb went off at La Belle nightclub in West Berlin, a hangout popular with American servicemen. Two US soldiers died in the attack, and 229 people were injured, including 79 Americans. Several hours later, the National Security Agency obtained and translated cables sent from the Libyan Embassy in East Berlin to Tripoli, indicating Libyan responsibility for the attack. With this and other intelligence in hand, President Ronald Reagan decided to bomb Libya.
On April 14, 66 American fighter jets struck military and government targets in Tripoli, including one of Qaddafi’s personal residences, in which his adopted baby daughter was killed. Qaddafi, however, managed to escape. “Today, we have done what we had to do,” Reagan said in a nationally-televised public address. “If necessary, we shall do it again.”
The La Belle bombing was not an isolated incident. For more than a decade prior to that attack, Qaddafi had been an enthusiastic sponsor of long-since forgotten terrorist organizations, including Italy’s Red Brigades, the German Red Army Faction, the Japanese Red Army, Black September, and the Filipino Moro Islamic Liberation Front. In 1981, American F-14 Tomcats shot down two Libyan fighter jets in the wake of a long-running maritime dispute whereby Qaddafi had claimed the international waters off the Libyan coast to be his own (another aerial dogfight occurred in March 1986, just a month before the West Berlin bombing). In 1984, Libyan agents, using their government’s embassy in London as a hideout, shot and killed British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher.
Despite this string of outrages, opposition to the American assault was swift and nearly uniform across the world. The next day, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to condemn the assault, proclaiming that it “constitutes a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law.” In hindsight, however, it’s clear that the fault with the 1986 attack was that it didn’t go far enough: Qaddafi continued supporting terrorism, most significantly the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people. Today, many of the countries that denounced the United States are clamoring for international action to stop Qaddafi’s continuing slaughter of his own people.
Indeed, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, hardly a body known for its humanitarian sympathies, has backed calls for the enforcement of a no-fly zone. The UK and France, perhaps shamed by their military and financial dealings with the regimes in Libya and Tunisia, respectively, have taken the lead in drafting a no-fly zone resolution at the United Nations. Senator John Kerry has suggested “cratering” Libyan airfields so as to prevent jet fighters from being able to take off.
What is being asked of the United States today — the multilateral enforcement of a no-fly zone, which, according to James Thomas and Zachary Cooper of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, would not require deploying a single allied plane over Libyan airspace — is less taxing than what it undertook in 1986, i.e., the unilateral bombing of military barracks and Qaddafi’s house. Then, the United States took more drastic action against Qaddafi over a significantly lesser crime, and with much less international support, than what it is being called to do now. Not to minimize the death of two American servicemen, but can anyone seriously argue that what moved President Reagan to bomb Tripoli in 1986 — a move he undertook with widespread domestic support — was more significant than the crimes Qaddafi is committing today?
“We Americans are slow to anger,” Reagan said in his April 14, 1986 address to the nation. “We always seek peaceful avenues before resorting to the use of force, and we did. We tried quiet diplomacy, public condemnation, economic sanctions, and demonstrations of military force, and none succeeded.” Twenty-five years later, as diplomacy, public condemnation, sanctions, and threats of military force once again fail to persuade Qaddafi to lay down his arms, President Obama could do worse than heed the actions of his predecessor.