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Libya: What Would Reagan Do?

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The following is a short exerpt from my forthcoming book chronicling Reagan and the third-world. Given the situation in Libya, I thought it appropriate to share at this time...

Just months after the hijacking of TWA flight 847, on December 27, 1985 twin terrorist attacks in the Rome and Vienna airports killed twenty and left another one hundred and twenty wounded.

On that day, at the Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport in Rome, four men approached the ticket counter of the Israeli airline, El Al, and opened fire with assault rifles and grenades. The devastation in Rome left sixteen dead and eighty wounded. Three of the terrorists were killed as well. Five Americans were among the dead. Just minutes after the attack in Rome, three men approached the El Al counter in the Vienna International Airport and opened fire at passengers waiting to check into their flight to Israel. Four people were killed.

The Abu Nidal group claimed responsibility, and Qaddafi denied all involvement in the attacks. Reagan didn't buy Qaddafi's denial, and ordered all American's to leave Libya on January 7, and signed NSDD 205, "Acting Against Libyan Support of International Terrorism," on January 8, which severed all economic ties between the United States and Libya.

Just over two months later, on March 14, Reagan convened a meeting of his National Security Council to decide how best to remove the Libyan threat.

POINDEXTER: Over the past several weeks we have taken various actions against Libya. We are planning to conduct a Freedom of Navigation (FON) challenge in the Gulf of Sidra to demonstrate that we do not accept Qaddafi's claim to the Gulf. The FON is tentatively scheduled for the last week of March.

Qaddafi is threatening a retaliatory attack if the so-called "line of death" is crossed. The issue for decision right now is how to respond if Qaddafi carries out his threat.

MCMAHON: Qaddafi's internal troubles have been exacerbated due to U.S. pressure, although Jallud alleges that the U.S. lacks resolve due to its failure to retaliate against terrorist attacks. The biggest impact the economic sanctions had on Libya was to freeze $750 million out of $5.8 billion.

There are continuing problems in Libya with foreign workers and service personnel. With respect to Libyan military action, CIA estimates Qaddafi will attack the U.S. if 32°-30′ is crossed. Qaddafi has ordered a shoot down.

The CIA believes that Qaddafi will try to intercept U.S. forces while intensifying his conduct on terrorism. There will be terrorism whether we go into Sidra or not.

WEINBERGER: U.S. forces operated in the FIR many times since 1981. We are now proposing a very extensive challenge. We want to be sure to penetrate with air and surface assets. We are going on the assumption that there will be a reaction.

CROWE: The CVBGs will be ready on March 23. We should remain flexible on dates with a 10-day window. We can stay longer if circumstances require. The exercise will include 24 ships and 2 SSNs. Kelso and Jeremiah planned retaliatory strikes. All have combat experience. There should be twelve E-2Cs and EA-6Bs in addition to normal air wing complement.

The Navy can manage any risks at sea and the forces will be under surveillance all the time. The first penetration will be by air at night. It will be emphatic but non-provocative. We will manage the risks by staying out of SAM envelopes. We also concur with CIA's view of risk. Two subs will be monitoring Libyan ports.

REAGAN: Can we mine the area?

CROWE: The ocean floor is too deep for bottom mines.
Turning to the Rules of Engagement (ROE), Libyan air performance has improved. There is a different envelope today than in 1981. There is risk, which will increase the longer the exercise continues, especially if U.S. forces enter mainland Libya.

The ROE's are based on the right of self-defense. In the presence of hostile threats, our response will be proportional to the attack or threat. CINCEUR wants supplemental rules with the authority to preempt if necessary. Any evidence of hostile intent will be determined by all source intelligence. The battle group commander can decide when to respond to an attack.
If we let the Libyans have the first shot we will probably lose some people. A lock-on of our forces is not enough. I recommend we approve CINCEUR request. We should give authority to hit if SA-5's are fired. If the Libyans enact a harsh response we should consider action at sea, with possibly a decision point to retaliate ashore.

(Two paragraphs redacted.)

SHULTZ: After listening to Secretary Weinberger and Admiral Crowe, I feel confident in our capabilities. I've prepared a timeline for diplomatic and congressional notifications and public diplomacy, which can be adjusted to events.
Belgium, the United Kingdom, Italy, Federal Republic of Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt as well as the Soviets will receive simultaneous notifications so there will be no illusions about what we are doing. With reference to Congress, there will be a potential War Powers Act problem when we move in closer. As for going below 32°-30′, if things start to happen we can't wait to brief Congress.

WEINBERGER: I have great reservation about congressional notification. A FON challenge is not an invasion. After the initial penetration we don't want to convey anything other than a FON challenge.

SHULTZ: Any notification should not have the capability to destroy the operation. Timing need not be mentioned.

POINDEXTER: Let's not brief under the War Powers Act.

WEINBERGER: What we want to do is avoid being date-specific.

REGAN: It is possible that the moment we penetrate it would be considered a hostile act? How are we going to explain that to Congress unless we notify them simultaneously with penetration?

SHULTZ: What about Sunday, March 23, 7-8 a.m. EST. The big issue here is what do we do if we are fired on?

WEINBERGER: We will do what we did in 1981 - fire back. Under the ROE's U.S. forces can shoot first to defend themselves if an attack appears imminent.

CROWE: If the Libyan's launch an SA-5, the rules are off.

SHULTZ: Libya is an enemy. Qaddafi is an enemy and a terrorist. We should be ready to undertake action to hurt him, not just fire back. Our forces should plaster him and the military targets. We need to undermine the confidence the Libyan people have in Qaddafi. It would be beneficial for Secretary Weinberger to pre-authorize what the military will be able to do.

CROWE: We will be ready if they fire. If we go ashore we are crossing a political line. It is a different world in the Mediterranean.

SHULTZ: It will be a better one when Qaddafi is put in a box.

MEESE: There are three phases to consider - at sea, in the air, and on land. There are two issues: what is our response and when to notify Congress and other countries.

If we act differently in this circumstance we will either set a precedent or heighten the perception that the U.S. is trying to provoke Qaddafi. If we go below 32°-30′ and nothing happens - why notify anyone?

BAKER: When does the President declare war on anybody? Somewhere along the way you are at war. Isn't it better to declare war than be vulnerable to Congress?

SHULTZ: We have an awesome array of power. If we get fired on for exercising our absolute right, it will be over in a day. Military targets are key.
If Qaddafi loses the Libyans' allegiance, that's a positive step. It is more likely, however, that Qaddafi will use terrorism against a traveling Secretary of State.

WEINBERGER: If we are engaged and end up leveling Tripoli, we will be accused of being non-proportional.

REAGAN: If hostile actions occur or appear imminent, we will attack the air bases where the planes or SAMs came from, whether they fire or not. If there are losses to the U.S., the commander has the right to choose non-military targets. Many would like to eliminate Qaddafi so we don't want to crystallize support.

WEINBERGER: The President needs to make final decisions. You have, Mr. President, given authority for local commanders to have the authority to take proportionate action. We might need to have some UK-based F-111's. I'll ask Mrs. Thatcher.

REGAN: What about leaks? Would we still continue?

WEINBERGER: Yes, remember this is a Freedom of Navigation exercise.

REAGAN: If we hit the pumping stations the Allies will be faced with the loss of their nationals. They might pull them out.

WEINBERGER: That is why strikes against economic targets are not automatic.

REAGAN: Automatic strikes will be conducted against bases and missile sites.

CROWE: If the Libyans come out we will smash them.

REAGAN: We should punish them by taking out SA-5s.

REGAN: What about coordination with other countries?

SHULTZ: It doesn't seem likely, especially the French.

REAGAN: Let's consider other military targets if U.S. forces take casualties.

CROWE: Agreed.

POINDEXTER: Mr. President, we are going to prepare a National Security Decision Directive for your signature.

On March 24, ten days after today's meeting, the U.S. crossed below 32°-30′, the "line of death," and American forcecs immediately took fire. Though the attacks lasted all day, nothing came close to a hit. Libyan forces weren't so lucky - the U.S. retaliation destroyed two Libyan ships, and 56 were reported killed after U.S. forces attacked Libyan military infrastructure.

Qaddafi retaliated, on April 4, when a bomb killed two Americans at La Belle Club, a popular discotheque in West Berlin frequented by American soldiers. Making the connection to Libyan involvement was easy: "Tripoli will be happy when you see the headlines tomorrow," an intercepted message from East Berlin read.

Reagan responded to the West Berlin bombing by approving operation El Dorado Canyon, an April 15 raid by at least 18 F-111 fighter jets with orders to destroy military infrastructure in and around Tripoli as well as one of Qaddafi's Tripoli residences.

"All evidence indicated that the U.S. strike came as a complete surprise to the Libyan armed forces," one of the first White House Situation Room notes read after some of the F-111's participating in the raid reported back. The intelligence summary continued:

No interceptors attempted to disrupt the attack, and all naval units including subs remained in port...Libyan reaction appears to have been confused and indecisive. The Libyan press has claimed that a large number of U.S. planes were shot down during the raids, that members of Qaddafi's family had been injured ... There were reports of a period of intense firing, probably by air defense forces, several hours after the attacks. Moscow reported the strikes and said they were meant as a demonstration that the U.S. will use force to "fulfill its hegemonistic plans."

All but one U.S. plane returned home safely, and Qaddafi survived the attack although two of his sons were injured, and a 15-month-old baby thought to be his adopted daughter was killed. Another White House Situation Room report assessed the likelihood of a Libyan response:

While no specific terrorist incidents or attacks have been noted in response to U.S. operations, Libyan radio is calling on all Arabs to rise up and "destroy all the U.S. bases in the Mediterranean." Tripoli has also called for attacks on all American interests, encouraging Arabs to "tear apart the bodies of Americans, civilian and military, and drink their blood." Iran says the U.S. has endangered its own security in the Middle East, claiming the Islamic world is now at war with the U.S.

Outside Beirut, two days later, three dead bodies were found (two British hostages, and that of American Peter Kilburn who was kidnapped almost 16 months earlier). The deaths were believed to be in retaliation for the American raids on Libya.

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