An American attack on Libya? A president coming under fire for this decision that he swears is right? This may sound like recent history — and it is — but this month’s article is on an event a quarter of a century ago. The tension between America and Libya is a long affair, sometimes burning hot and other times simmering beneath the surface, but it is always there. Let us reflect on one such incident in this abusive relationship.
On April 5, 1986 there was a terrorist attack on the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin. German citizen Verena Chanaa and her sister, Andrea Haeusler, carried a bomb into the club in a travel bag. One of them placed the bomb under a table near the DJ, with the explosion killing a Turkish woman (Nermin Hannay) and two American sergeants (Kenneth T. Ford and James E. Goins) and injuring more than 230 people, including 79 American servicemen. Some of those injured were permanently disabled.
American President Ronald Reagan blamed Libya for the bombing, citing messages to the Libyan East Berlin embassy he said proved the country’s involvement. The German government had the same information that Reagan had, but did not feel it was clear-cut at all, with their interpretation being drastically different from the NSA version. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, best known for his exposure of My Lai, was quick to doubt the official story. The president remained determined, saying, “Our evidence is direct, it is precise, it is irrefutable.” To be fair, suspecting Libya was reasonable — they may have been retaliating for an American attack two weeks before, when 35 Libyan seamen were killed in international waters.
Ten days after the night club bombing, Reagan ordered a raid on Libya, called Operation El Dorado Canyon. He said it was “self-defense against future attack”, calling to mind the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war that got us involved in Iraq. Airstrikes were ordered against Tripoli and Benghazi, today the bases for Gaddafi and the rebel forces, respectively. At least 15 civilians and 45 Libyan soldiers died, including a child alleged to be Colonel Gaddafi’s adopted 15-month old daughter and a teenage girl from London. More than 2000 Libyans were injured. Of course, none of the Libyans killed had any connection to the bombing — this was an act of aggression in the night against innocent people, asleep in their beds, for something beyond their control. And the Navy pilots involved received a total of 158 medals for this cowardly attack.
The international community was hardly supportive. The United States was denied airspace rights by France, Spain and Italy as well as the use of European continental bases, forcing the Air Force to fly around France, Spain and through the Straits of Gibraltar from the UK, adding 1,300 miles each way and requiring multiple aerial refuelings. Some bombs landed off-target, hitting diplomatic and civilian sites such as embassies and residences. The French embassy was either destroyed or only narrowly missed according to varying sources. The Libyans were not aware of any pending attack, so anti-aircraft fire did not begin until after the planes had passed over their targets — an international suckerpunch.
Gaddafi was warned of the attack by a telephone call from Italian politician Bettino Craxi, and his family was able to escape their residence moments before the bombs dropped. Had they been home, one might ask how killing a head of state, no matter how terrible, would be legal under international law. Even American policy forbids such action. In Executive Order 12333, Reagan wrote, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” Even without killing Gaddafi, though, this military strike was likely illegal. By a vote of 79 in favor to 28 against with 33 abstentions, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 41/38 which “condemns the military attack perpetrated against [Libya] on 15 April 1986, which constitutes a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law.” The problem with international law, though, is there is almost no way to enforce it.
The day after the attack, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher defended the action, saying, “Terrorism has to be defeated; it cannot be tolerated or side-stepped. When other ways and other methods have failed—I am the first to wish that they had succeeded—it is right that the terrorist should know that firm steps will be taken to deter him from attacking either other peoples or his own people who have taken refuge in countries that are free.” What “other methods” failed within the first ten days is a mystery. And the concept that “terrorism” can be defeated by military means reminds us that today’s global war on terror is nothing new, but simply a resurrection of failed policies a generation ago. Socialist politician Eric Heffer scolded Thatcher to her face over her endorsement of warfare, reminding her she was a Christian and that “two wrongs do not make a right”.
The UN was not alone in its anger. The Non-Aligned Movement (a collection of countries in Africa and elsewhere with no alliance with a major power) said that it condemned the “dastardly, blatant and unprovoked act of aggression”. The League of Arab States was outraged at the US aggression and that it reinforced an element of anarchy in international relations. The African Union said the deliberate attempt to kill Libyans violated the principles of international law. Iran asserted the attack constituted a policy of aggression, gunboat diplomacy, an act of war, and called for an extensive political and economic boycott of the United States. West Germany stated that international disputes required diplomatic and not military solutions. China said the attack violated norms of international relations and had aggravated tension in the region. The Soviet Union said there was a clear link between the attack and US policy aimed at stirring up existing hotbeds of tension and creating new ones, and at destabilizing the international situation.
The United Kingdom took heat to a lesser degree. Prime Minister Thatcher was criticized by many people, including the Queen of England. Gaddafi himself responded by saying “Thatcher is a murderer. She allowed planes to be sent from her country knowing that they intended to attack me, to attack my home and family… Thatcher is a prostitute. She sold herself to Reagan and now she has sold her country, too.”
Years later, while sisters Chanaa and Haeusler were on trial, Judge Peter Marhofer said it was not clear whether Gaddafi or Libyan intelligence had actually ordered the attack. Yet, on August 10, 2004, Libya accepted an agreement to pay a total of $35 million compensation. To pay the settlement, Libya demanded money from global oil companies operating in Libya’s oil fields, under threat of “serious consequences” to their leases. Libya’s settlement was at least partially funded by some companies, including some based in the US, that chose to cooperate with Libya’s demand. As a result, President George W. Bush signed an executive order restoring the Libyan government’s immunity from terror-related lawsuits and dismissing all of the pending compensation cases in the United States. For Bush, protecting oil companies outranked helping grieving families.
The most ironic aspect of the entire situation is that at the exact same time Libya was a target for their support of terrorism, the United States was selling weapons to Iran — a known supporter of terrorism. And we all know how well our relationship with Iran worked out…