STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Like many Arab leaders, Moammar Gadhafi has a long and complicated history with the United States. Since taking power in 1969, Gadhafi has outlasted many American presidents, including the president in the 1980s who considered Gadhafi, well, public enemy number one.
NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN: John Kennedy's nemesis was Fidel Castro. For Ronald Reagan, it was Colonel Gadhafi.
President RONALD REAGAN: I find he's not only a barbarian but he's flaky.
BOWMAN: Some U.S. allies, even a few officials within his own administration, thought President Reagan was too fixated on Gadhafi, that he was building him up. But the president bristled at the Libyan leader's support for terrorist groups and revolutionaries. And he coined a nickname for him.
President REAGAN: This mad dog of the Middle East has a goal of a world revolution, Muslim fundamentalist revolution.
BOWMAN: The confrontation spanned Reagan's two terms as president. Shortly after he was inaugurated in 1981, President 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 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.
Mr. HOWARD TEICHER (Former National Security Council Member): He was somewhat confused. Why weren't we making progress?
BOWMAN: Howard Teicher served on Reagan's National Security Council and was in the room for many of the key meetings about Libya.
Mr. TEICHER: The president was clearly frustrated that the policies we had taken to confront Gadhafi wherever we could was having relatively limited impact.
BOWMAN: Then, in 1986, came the most significant confrontation between Reagan and Gadhafi. It was April. Terrorists bombed the La Belle discotheque in Berlin.
(Soundbite of news broadcast)
Unidentified Man #1: Three groups have now claimed responsibility for the late-night bomb attack on a disco in Berlin. An investigation...
BOWMAN: Two American soldiers were killed. More than 150 people were injured. Speculation centered on a Libyan connection and what the U.S. 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. Reagan was asked about that at a press conference.
Unidentified Man #2 (Reporter): Mr. President, critics say that your policy toward Libya has been too confrontational. President Carter described Colonel Gadhafi as a polecat and said you don't poke a polecat. What do you say to critics who say that military retaliation only begets more violence?
President RONALD REAGAN: Well, I could answer the other thing, that 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. And everyone's entitled to call him whatever animal they want, but I think he's more than a bad smell.
BOWMAN: The U.S. had intercepted communications between Libyan officials in Tripoli and their agents in Berlin. Gadhafi was behind the attack.
Howard Teicher, the White House official, was in the situation room when the president decided on a military response.
Mr. TEICHER: 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 know, you're recommending.
BOWMAN: What Reagan authorized became known as Operation El Dorado Canyon. After it was over, the president went on TV to address the nation.
President REAGAN: At 7 o'clock 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.
BOWMAN: Military targets were hit in Tripoli and Benghazi. Libya reported that dozens were killed, including Gadhafi's daughter.
President REAGAN: Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.
BOWMAN: 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. This is cockpit audio tape from that engagement.
(Soundbite of cockpit recording)
Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible)
BOWMAN: The American fighter jets shot down both Libyan planes. Two weeks later, Reagan left office. Gadhafi was still in power.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.