STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN: John Kennedy's nemesis was Fidel Castro. For Ronald Reagan, it was Colonel Gadhafi.
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.
REAGAN: This mad dog of the Middle East has a goal of a world revolution, Muslim fundamentalist revolution.
BOWMAN: 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.
HOWARD TEICHER: 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.
TEICHER: The president was clearly frustrated that the policies we had taken to confront Gadhafi wherever we could was having relatively limited impact.
BOWMAN: Unidentified Man #1: Three groups have now claimed responsibility for the late- night bomb attack on a disco in Berlin. An investigation...
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BOWMAN: 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.
REAGAN: 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?
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: Howard Teicher, the White House official, was in the situation room when the president decided on a military response.
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.
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.
REAGAN: Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.
BOWMAN: Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible)
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BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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