By Dr. Paul Kengor and Bill Clark
Editor's note: A version of this piece was written for USA Today shortly after
the Libyan revolution in early 2011.
Ronald Reagan clashed with Libya and its dictator Moammar Gadhafi for the
first time over 30 years ago. The details of that encounter must be
revisited–particularly President Reagan's sense of resolve and clarity of
purpose–as once again President Obama's foreign policy grapples with the
anti-American sentiment and attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East.
One of us (Clark) was there in Washington in the 1980s, serving as acting
secretary of state, in the absence of Secretary of State Al Haig, when the news
hit regarding Gadhafi's latest antics. Clark was in constant communication with
Reagan and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. All had been close friends,
colleagues and confidants dating back to California in the 1960s, when Clark was
Governor Reagan's chief of staff.
The crux of the crisis was, as usual, Gadhafi himself. The location was the Gulf
of Sidra, off the North African coast in the Mediterranean, an area of obvious
strategic importance. Gadhafi had already persisted in making himself a nuisance
to the civilized world. In the late 1970s, he issued a direct challenge to the
Each year, the American Sixth Fleet conducted extensive naval exercises in these
waters. This was acceptable action in international waters, appropriate
maneuvers for battle-readiness, particularly for the nation that led NATO. U.S.
actions went on without dispute or provocation. That changed when Gadhafi
unilaterally extended Libya's presence beyond its historic 12-mile coastal limit
into a much wider swath that went 100-200 miles from Tripoli to Benghazi, deep
into the Gulf of Sidra. He was attempting to establish it as a Libyan lake, off
limits to America and the West.
The Carter administration chose not to challenge Gadhafi, rescheduling and
relocating U.S. exercises, ordering the Navy to stay clear of Gadhafi's
muscle-flexing. In 1981, however, a new president and new team–new principals
with new principles–came to Washington. Ronald Reagan made clear he would not
let America be bullied. Reagan and Weinberger announced that exercises would
take place, as scheduled, just outside Libya's 12-mile coastal limit.
More than that, the Joint Chiefs of Staff established new rules of engagement
for the U.S. fleet, which Reagan quickly approved. The rules stated that if U.S.
forces were fired upon, they could fire back immediately, without seeking layers
of approval. "Anytime we send an American anywhere in the world where he or she
can be shot at," declared Reagan, "they have the right to shoot back."
Reagan went further. During a National Security Council briefing, the admiral in
charge asked precisely how far U.S. aircraft would be permitted to retaliate
against Libyan aircraft. Reagan answered: "All the way into their hangar," into
Reagan understood that a bully continues bullying until he's punched in the
nose. That moment came with early morning exercises in August 1981, led by the
USS Nimitz. The Libyan air force set course, with a large number of aircraft,
including Soviet MiGs. After a series of confrontations, two Libyan fighter jets
locked on two American F-14 Tomcats escorting our ships, firing air-to-air
missiles. The American pilots wasted no time making good use of the
Reagan-approved rules, firing back with heat-seeking missiles. No need remained
to follow the Libyan jets all the way to their hangars; they went down in the
This demonstration cooled off Gadhafi, though it did not end his mischief. He
continued his terrorist activities, operating not defiantly in the open but
covertly, pursuing an extensive hit list, including Clark as one of the
principal targets. His killing of innocent civilians in countries deemed threats
to his regime eventually prompted the Reagan administration to order U.S.
aircraft to Libya in April 1986. Targets in Tripoli and Benghazi were of a
military and personal nature. Some of the nearly 100 bombs delivered on
Gadhafi's homeland landed at Splendid Gate, Gadhafi's barracks, injuring his
family members. Gadhafi, sleeping in a tent outside the compound, barely missed
injury but did receive a rude awakening.
Consistently, President Reagan held firm against protests from the international
community, from France, and from American liberals insisting that the Gulf of
Sidra would be another Gulf of Tonkin: "Vietnam" all over again.
President Obama has a terribly difficult job with the present crisis in Libya
and throughout the Middle East. To be clear, we're not advocating military
action. We don't want war. We believe the lessons of the Reagan years–and those
immediately prior–speak for themselves, namely: The Middle East situation
demands a sense of direction, clarity, and confident purpose. Uncertainty
suggests weakness. The Washington rule stands the test of time: The principles
never change–only the principals.
– Judge Bill Clark was President Reagan's deputy secretary of state in 1981 and
national security adviser from 1982-83, among other posts. Dr. Paul Kengor is
co-author (with Pat Clark Doerner) of Clark's biography, "The Judge: William
P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand." Dr. Kengor is also professor of political
science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision &
Values, and author of the New York Times best-selling book, "The Communist:
Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor."
© 2012 by The Center for Vision Values at Grove City College. The views &
expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City
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