President Ronald Reagan gestures during a news conference at the White House in January 1986, when he said there was "irrefutable evidence" that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was involved in airport attacks in Rome and Vienna in December 1985.
President Ronald Reagan gestures during a news conference at the White House in January 1986, when he said there was "irrefutable evidence" that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was involved in airport attacks in Rome and Vienna in December 1985. Scott Stewart/AP
America's long, complicated history with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi goes back three decades.
During Ronald Reagan's presidency, Gadhafi was public enemy No. 1 — just as President John Kennedy's nemesis had been Cuba's Fidel Castro.
"I find he's not only a barbarian but he's flaky," Reagan said of Gadhafi.
Some U.S. allies — even a few officials within his own administration — thought Reagan was too fixated on Gadhafi, that he was building Gadhafi up.
But the president bristled at the Libyan leader's support for terrorist groups and revolutionaries. And he coined a nickname for him: the "mad dog of the Middle East." Gadhafi's goal, Reagan said, was "a Muslim fundamentalist revolution."
'The President Was Clearly Frustrated'
The confrontation spanned Reagan's two terms as president.
Shortly after he was inaugurated in 1981, Reagan expelled Libyan diplomats from Washington after reports that Libyan assassination teams were targeting U.S. envoys abroad.
That summer, he ordered Navy ships to conduct exercises off the Libyan coast. U.S. warplanes shot down two Libyan aircraft they deemed to be a threat.
The president stepped up economic pressure, too. He barred exports of aircraft parts. Through it all, Gadhafi remained firmly in power, and the president grew more annoyed.
"He was somewhat confused. Why weren't we making progress?" recalls Howard Teicher, who served on Reagan's National Security Council — and was in the room for many of the key meetings about Libya.
Two plainclothes U.S. military police officers walk around the scene of a bombing at the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin in this April 1986 file photo.
Two plainclothes U.S. military police officers walk around the scene of a bombing at the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin in this April 1986 file photo. Andreas Schoelzel/AP
"The president was clearly frustrated that the policies we had taken to confront Gadhafi wherever we could was having relatively limited impact," Teicher says.
'More Than A Bad Smell'
Then, in 1986, came the most significant confrontation between Reagan and Gadhafi.
In April, terrorists bombed the La Belle discotheque in Berlin. Two American soldiers were killed and more than 150 people were injured. Speculation centered on a Libyan connection and what the United States should do.
Some urged caution. Former President Jimmy Carter said the Reagan administration was making a hero out of Gadhafi and increasing the terrorist threat to Americans.
When Reagan was asked about that at a news conference, he replied: "There's another side of that — that if somebody does this and gets away with it, nothing happens to him, that encourages him to try even harder and do more. ... I think he's more than a bad smell."
The United States had intercepted communications between Libyan officials in Tripoli and their agents in Berlin. Gadhafi was behind the attack.
Teicher, the White House official, was in the Situation Room when the president decided on a military response.
Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images
Some thought Reagan was too fixated on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, shown in Tripoli in February 1986.
Some thought Reagan was too fixated on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, shown in Tripoli in February 1986. Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images
"Reagan would sort of, like, cock his head a little bit to one side and maybe shut his eyes and look a little disappointed and say, 'Well, I see no alternative but to authorize the action that ... you're recommending,' " Teicher says.
'We Have Done What We Had To Do'
What Reagan authorized became known as Operation El Dorado Canyon. After it was over, the president went on TV to address the nation:
"At 7 this evening Eastern time, air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters, terrorist facilities and military assets that support Moammar Gadhafi's subversive activities. From initial reports, our forces have succeeded in their mission."
Military targets were hit in Tripoli and Benghazi. Libya reported that dozens were killed, including Gadhafi's daughter.
"Today, we have done what we had to do," Reagan said. "If necessary, we shall do it again."
That wasn't the end of it.
Three years later, in January 1989, two American F-14s engaged in a dogfight with Libyan MiG fighter jets. The American jets shot down both Libyan planes.
Two weeks later, Reagan left office. Gadhafi was still in power.