In April 1986 American pilots bombed multiple targets in Libya. One of the targets, the residence of Libyan leader Mohammar Qaddafi, was destroyed and his two-year-old adopted daughter was killed. The “collateral damage” included the French embassy, a chicken farm on the outskirts of Tripoli, and other civilian sites. Unconfirmed reports put noncombatant casualties at up to one hundred people.
The attack was in response to alleged Libyan involvement in a string of terrorist incidents, including the bombing two weeks before of a West Berlin discothèque in which two Americans died. Following the air strikes, the Reagan administration, completely misreading their impact, argued Qaddafi had changed his ways and ended Libyan support for terrorism. The opposite was the case. The Qaddafi regime responded almost immediately to the attack in a string of terrorist reprisals lasting almost four years.
The evidence suggests the immediate Libyan response included the murder of a kidnapped American and two Britons in Beirut, an attack on a U.S. embassy employee in Sudan, and a Libyan missile fired at a U.S. installation in Italy. Pan Am Flight 103 was later destroyed in December 1988 over Scotland and UTA Flight 772 blew up over Niger in September 1989. Libyan officials were eventually convicted of involvement in both the Pan Am and UTA terrorist attacks.
Inside Libya, the air strikes rallied radical elements behind Qaddafi and demoralized any opposition in the Libyan armed forces. Outside, the American crusade embarrassed exiled Libyan opposition groups, undermining their credibility and leaving many to argue the military option was for Libyans and Libyans alone. Internationally, the attack accentuated the very real differences separating Washington and its European allies on how to deal with terrorism in general and Qaddafi in particular.
It was only in the 1990s that Qaddafi began to change his ways. A combination of bilateral U.S. sanctions, quiet diplomacy, and a multilateral UN sanctions regime played a major role in the shift in Libyan foreign policy.
Seemingly terrorism-free for a more than a decade, Qaddafi today can best be described as a “rogue” trying to come in from the cold. He immediately denounced the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Actively supporting the war on terrorism, Libyan officials rushed to share with their American and British counterparts intelligence on al Qaeda and related Islamic militant groups. Libya also paid compensation to the families of the victims of the UTA bombing and has agreed, in principle, to compensate the families of the victims of the Pan Am tragedy.
The Bush administration should apply the “lessons learned” from Libya to its treatment of Saddam Hussein. Violence in the Middle East, as most recently demonstrated in the Israeli-Palestinian case, most often leads to retaliation, perpetuating an ongoing cycle of violence. It can also have unexpected, undesirable consequences. With Qaddafi, the international community achieved desired policy change only when it moved from the use of force to the use of a basket of commercial, diplomatic, and legal remedies. Rather than rush to attack Iraq, the Bush administration should first give the UN inspectors and the quiet diplomacy in process in the region every chance to work.