04/22/2011 04:01 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2011

Libya: What Did Reagan Do?

As the saga of Gaddafi's hold on power in Libya continues to play out, I want to share what the situation looked like to President Reagan in his first year in office. The following is from my forthcoming book on President Reagan and the third-world:

After Muammar Gaddafi seized power in Libya during a 1969 military coup, international terrorism had become his modus opperendi when it came to consolidating his control of Libya and his influence in the Arab world. By 1981, among a laundry list of terrorist's acts, the National Security Council was holding onto top-secret evidence that Gaddafi attempted to assassinate the United States Ambassador to Egypt, just a few years earlier.

Reagan and the NSC were holding that information tight. In the realm of public information, 2,000 rioting Libyans torched the United States Embassy in Tripoli as well as the French and Tunisian Embassies, in 1980. Gaddafi also continued to deploy hit squads anywhere in the world he could locate Libyans who spoke out against his regime.

Territorially, Gaddafi was just as ambitious, and in October 1980, just a month before Reagan's election, and with the American attention focused on the 52 hostages now held for eleven months in Iran, Libyan forces escalated world tensions by resuming the already decade long territorial dispute with neighboring Chad.

In November, the same month President Reagan received 51 percent of the votes and 44 States, Gaddafi was believed to be responsible for the assassination of more Libyans living in the U.K.: in one of the cases, two children of a Libyan exile were poisoned by eating peanuts containing thalium; and the third victim was an anti-Gaddafi Libyan student in London who was brutally murdered. The violence continued in February 1981, this time provoking international fears, when a gunman opened fire in the Rome airport targeting a Libyan exile who was believed to be exiting a flight from Algiers.

The violence moved to the United States in July, when an anti-Gaddafi Libyan student was assassinated in Utah. Realizing that he would provoke a response because Gaddafi claimed that the Gulf of Sidra was under his control, President Reagan, in August 1981, ordered a U.S. Freedom of Navigation (FON) training exercise off the coast of Libya in the Gulf of Sidra. After the U.S. forces crossed into the Gulf of Sidra that summer, two Libyan SU-22s fired at U.S. Navy F-14s. The F-14s escaped, both Libyan SU-22s were destroyed, and the FON challenge was deemed a success.

The FON, however, failed to convince Gaddafi that Reagan was serious in his efforts to stop his use of international terrorism, and in January 1982 Reagan attempted to further isolate Libya by imposing economic sanctions. The following National Security Council meeting on Libya took place on December 8, 1981.

NANCE: Today we will be discussing Libya.

CASEY: We should present to the public a definitive statement of evidence against Libya. For example, we should tell the public about Colonel Qaddafi's 1977 plan to assassinate the U.S. Ambassador in Egypt.

REAGAN: The American press would be reluctant to accept the Administration's evidence no matter how many details it receives.

CASEY: We should give the press a map, providing locations of terrorist training camps in Libya, with a caption that terror is Libya's second largest industry.

REAGAN: The press should understand that the U.S. Government does not want Colonel Qaddafi dead, just confined.

DEAVER: Why not let the press stories about Libyan hit teams in the U.S. play out in the media for at least 24 hours before the Administration initiates a press campaign.

HAIG: It's important that the Administration decide where it wants to go from here and how it wants to get there. A decision to withdraw Americans from Libya should not be made in isolation from other related choices. We need a concerted set of decisions of which the withdrawal and a demarche to Libya are interrelated steps. A decision to withdraw Americans without a warning regarding the nature of the unacceptable Libyan behavior would create great uncertainties in Qaddafi, perhaps causing him to act in an irrational manner.

REAGAN: Should the demarche be made publicly or privately?

HAIG: The bottom line is that business as usual with Libya is unacceptable no matter if Libya conducts a new terrorist incident or not. First, there will be a phased reduction in U.S. oil imports from Libya after U.S. citizens have departed in response to a request for a voluntary compliance or as a result of a mandatory order.

Second, there will be a ban of U.S. exports to Libya in consultation with American allies. Our Allies might not be much help in view of Libya's withdrawal from Chad. After a ban on the import of Libyan oil, there could be a pause before deciding to cut off exports to Libya. There is generally interagency consensus on the Libyan study. Since there is some dissent, however, the dissenters should present their case.

CARLUCCI: The only quarrel Defense has with the State study is that it did not move fast enough against Libya. The President can meet with the CEO's of U.S. corporations doing business with Libya, but that will not work. One problem is that the overall goals regarding Libya are unclear. Is it to destabilize Libya?

HAIG: (Looking at Carlucci) How can you have a problem with a paper that DOD helped to prepare?

CARLUCCI: The U.S. government needs more than economic measures in order to deter or coerce Qaddafi.

BALDRIGE: Economic representatives from the United Kingdom are unaware of U.S. intelligence on the Libyan threat. If the U.S. expects allied cooperation, information has to be made available.

REGAN: The U.S. Government will have legal difficulties with American companies doing business in Libya. Why should they voluntarily give up assets without obtaining compensation? How can these companies justify to their stockholders giving up future earnings in favor of the national interest? There are wild cards, such as Armand Hammer of Occidental Oil, who will meet the Attorney General in court.

I'm sympathetic towards taking action against Qaddafi. On the other hand, what is the effect going to be on U.S. interests in the rest of the Middle East if we seize Libyan assets? What's the signal going to be to other nations regarding the reliability of the United States? The Saudis, for example, may get the wrong idea from U.S. economic actions against Libya.

HAIG: The Saudis have urged that the U.S. take strong actions against Libya.

CARLUCCI: King Hassan of Morocco told Secretary Weinberger that the U.S. should take strong actions against Libya.

BUSH: Some oil companies' calculated the risk when they went into Libya or when they decided to stay. The companies may go to court, but that should not keep us from taking appropriate actions. We should take economic actions against Libya.

SMITH: What Libyan behavior is considered unacceptable under the terms of the demarche?

HAIG: The President is on public record that he will take strong and prompt action against terrorism.

SMITH: What if someone other than a Libyan commits a terrorist act in order to provoke an American-Libyan confrontation? The administration should keep an eye on the War Powers Act, while considering options regarding Libya.

KIRKPATRICK: Colonel Qaddafi has intimidated the leaders of black African states. The Organization of African Unity originally wanted to bring Libya before the UN Security Council during its invasion of Chad but was deterred by the threat Libya posed to them. No one dares oppose Colonel Qaddafi.

REAGAN: The United States dares.

CARLUCCI: Egypt is also a significant exception in opposing Qaddafi.

REAGAN: The only excuse government has for existing is that it will come to the aid of its citizens anywhere their rights are being violated. The demarche should go forth, the Americans should be asked to depart.

HAIG: American citizens have got to get out of Libya.

DEAVER: What's the likelihood that Libya would interfere with the departure of Americans?

HAIG: Libya is not going to seize Americans because a hostage situation would alarm other westerners in Libya. Libya needs western technicians so it is going to be reluctant to jeopardize their departure in the context of a hostage crisis.

BUSH: Has there been a response to the October 5th demarche?

HAIG: There has been no reply - the demarche was just cast aside.

BAKER: When should we send another demarche?

HAIG: Before the withdrawal starts. The demarche should be private and it should provide specific details in order to reduce the uncertainty in Qaddafi.
MEESE: The Administration has to take into account three constituencies: the U.S. public, the Congress, as well as allies and friendly nations. Are the western allies prepared to join an American embargo of Libya?

HAIG: The Allies are not prepared to take concerted action with the United States. Nevertheless, the Saudis are prepared to increase oil production in the event that the U.S. places a ban on the import of Libyan oil.

MEESE: Mr. Nance, would you prepare a detailed decision memorandum? Make sure that there is White House involvement throughout the implementation of the policy toward Libya.

HAYWARD: The Chiefs have examined the assassination threat in relation to graduated targeting in various areas of risk. One criterion is likelihood of success. Libya's nuclear power plant is in a high-risk area as there are a lot of third country nationals in the area.

HAIG: (Looking at Hayward) Please prepare for the President targeting options with pros, cons, and likelihood of success.

HAYWARD: What's the Administration prepared to do in the event of a hostage situation, given the War Powers constraints?

HAIG: We can hold Libya's oil fields as potential hostages in the event that Libya seizes American citizens as hostages.

Gadaffi, now dubbed the "mad dog" of the Middle East by Reagan, just stepped up his terrorist attacks to include hijackings of cruise ships and airplanes. With no change in behavior despite the strict and stricter sanctions policy Reagan kept imposing, by 1986, Reagan had had enough. Two recently declassified meetings discuss the actions Reagan ordered against Libya: first on March 14, 1986 discussing another FON challenge; and the second on August 14, 1986, discussing the results of Operation El Dorado Canyon during which Reagan said:

"It is absolutely necessary that there be no delay in hitting Qaddafi again when the evidence links Libya to a terrorist act."

Be sure to check out for all the original documents used in this post.