The Death Of Gaddafi and the Reagan Legacy

Almost 30 years ago, in February 1982, inside the White House a very top-secret paper was being circulated with the title, "Next Steps On Libya." The short paper, a National Security Council staff summary of a Department of State paper prepared for the February 4, 1982 NSC meeting on Oil and Gas Equipment Controls, argued that the U.S. objectives were to:

1) pressure or coerce Libya to cease such policies as international terrorism and subversion of regimes friendly to the U.S.; and 2) to isolate Libya in the world community and to drive a wedge between Libya and Arab regimes friendly to the U.S.

"An important first step," the memo continues, to remove the inconsistency between U.S. political and economic policies toward Libya. Implementation of the economic measures under consideration here (the oil embargo, an embargo of exports to Libya, and a ban on commercial transactions by U.S. firms within Libya) will prevent continuation of the current cycle whereby U.S. oil income and production expertise plus the export of U.S. technology translate into Libyan income. This income is then used to purchase advanced Soviet weaponry and to spread terrorism and subversion in the region, in Europe through indirect funding of terrorists there, and, most recently, reaching to the United States itself.

However, the memo continues,

Libya claims to want improved relations with the U.S.; to have cancelled terrorist operations; and to dismantle terrorist camps, but these claims have not been confirmed. Colonel Gaddafi appears to be disconcerted and threatened by U.S. actions yet is not prepared to abandon his goals, though on the basis of firm U.S. resolve he may be willing to modify temporarily some of his more extreme methods. The private U.S. demarche increased Colonel Qadhafi's perception of threat, while the public confrontation in the Gulf of Sidra enhanced his tendency for bravado.

Gaddafi's death is no doubt a time for celebration for the millions who suffered under his brutal dictatorship, as well as for the countless of non-Libyans living through the grief of losing a loved-one in a Libyan-sponsored terrorist act. Enjoy this moment. It is long overdue, and hopefully, in the months ahead as the Libyan people work on rebuilding their war-ravaged country, they will remember all those who sacrificed their lives to give them the opportunity to build a better life for their children, and their children's children.

Like famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden liked to say, more can be learned from a victory than a loss. With the death of Gaddafi, it is time for a serious evaluation of the successes and failures of the U.S. approach to handling "the mad dog of the middle east."

This is a very difficult question that deserves serious attention. For example, President Reagan's decision to restrict oil and gas imports and exports to Libya only furthered Gaddafi's anti-Americanism to the point where Reagan felt he had no choice but to launch strikes against Libyan military infrastructure, including non-military targets, like Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli. Was this assassination attempt worth the risk? The failed attempt further provoked Gaddafi, leading to acts like the bombing of Pan Am 103 on December 21, 1988, which killed 270 people.

It is also important to consider what went right. For example, was the second Bush administration correct to offer an olive-branch to Gaddafi? Did that serve to keep the dictator in power longer, or did it help make the transition less deadly as Gaddafi gave up his plans to develop weapons of mass destruction in 2003?

With the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the potential for further military action in other parts of the world growing on a daily basis, let's hope whatever the lessons are from dealing with Gaddafi over the last 40 plus years, the decision-makers will figure them out before someone like Gaddafi actually gets the resources to build and use a WMD.

More primary source reading on Libya and the Reagan administration can be accessed at The Reagan Files website by clicking here.