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Dr. Paul Kengor

Dr. Paul Kengor

Executive Director
Center for Vision & Values
at Grove City College


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Kengor's Corner

On Libya Three Decades Ago

by Paul Kengor

By Dr. Paul Kengor and Bill Clark

Editor's note: A version of this piece was written for USA Today shortly after

the Libyan revolution in early 2011.

[4]Ronald Reagan clashed with Libya and its dictator [5]Moammar Gadhafi for the

first time over 30 years ago. The details of that encounter must be

revisited–particularly President Reagan's sense of resolve and clarity of

purpose–as once again President Obama's foreign policy grapples with the

anti-American sentiment and attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East.

One of us (Clark) was there in Washington in the 1980s, serving as acting

secretary of state, in the absence of Secretary of State Al Haig, when the news

hit regarding Gadhafi's latest antics. Clark was in constant communication with

Reagan and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. All had been close friends,

colleagues and confidants dating back to California in the 1960s, when Clark was

Governor Reagan's chief of staff.

The crux of the crisis was, as usual, Gadhafi himself. The location was the Gulf

of Sidra, off the North African coast in the Mediterranean, an area of obvious

strategic importance. Gadhafi had already persisted in making himself a nuisance

to the civilized world. In the late 1970s, he issued a direct challenge to the

United States.

Each year, the American Sixth Fleet conducted extensive naval exercises in these

waters. This was acceptable action in international waters, appropriate

maneuvers for battle-readiness, particularly for the nation that led NATO. U.S.

actions went on without dispute or provocation. That changed when Gadhafi

unilaterally extended Libya's presence beyond its historic 12-mile coastal limit

into a much wider swath that went 100-200 miles from Tripoli to Benghazi, deep

into the Gulf of Sidra. He was attempting to establish it as a Libyan lake, off

limits to America and the West.

The Carter administration chose not to challenge Gadhafi, rescheduling and

relocating U.S. exercises, ordering the Navy to stay clear of Gadhafi's

muscle-flexing. In 1981, however, a new president and new team–new principals

with new principles–came to Washington. Ronald Reagan made clear he would not

let America be bullied. Reagan and Weinberger announced that exercises would

take place, as scheduled, just outside Libya's 12-mile coastal limit.

More than that, the Joint Chiefs of Staff established new rules of engagement

for the U.S. fleet, which Reagan quickly approved. The rules stated that if U.S.

forces were fired upon, they could fire back immediately, without seeking layers

of approval. "Anytime we send an American anywhere in the world where he or she

can be shot at," declared Reagan, "they have the right to shoot back."

Reagan went further. During a National Security Council briefing, the admiral in

charge asked precisely how far U.S. aircraft would be permitted to retaliate

against Libyan aircraft. Reagan answered: "All the way into their hangar," into

Libya itself.

Reagan understood that a bully continues bullying until he's punched in the

nose. That moment came with early morning exercises in August 1981, led by the

USS Nimitz. The Libyan air force set course, with a large number of aircraft,

including Soviet MiGs. After a series of confrontations, two Libyan fighter jets

locked on two American F-14 Tomcats escorting our ships, firing air-to-air

missiles. The American pilots wasted no time making good use of the

Reagan-approved rules, firing back with heat-seeking missiles. No need remained

to follow the Libyan jets all the way to their hangars; they went down in the


This demonstration cooled off Gadhafi, though it did not end his mischief. He

continued his terrorist activities, operating not defiantly in the open but

covertly, pursuing an extensive hit list, including Clark as one of the

principal targets. His killing of innocent civilians in countries deemed threats

to his regime eventually prompted the Reagan administration to order U.S.

aircraft to Libya in April 1986. Targets in Tripoli and Benghazi were of a

military and personal nature. Some of the nearly 100 bombs delivered on

Gadhafi's homeland landed at Splendid Gate, Gadhafi's barracks, injuring his

family members. Gadhafi, sleeping in a tent outside the compound, barely missed

injury but did receive a rude awakening.

Consistently, President Reagan held firm against protests from the international

community, from France, and from American liberals insisting that the Gulf of

Sidra would be another Gulf of Tonkin: "Vietnam" all over again.

President Obama has a terribly difficult job with the present crisis in Libya

and throughout the Middle East. To be clear, we're not advocating military

action. We don't want war. We believe the lessons of the Reagan years–and those

immediately prior–speak for themselves, namely: The Middle East situation

demands a sense of direction, clarity, and confident purpose. Uncertainty

suggests weakness. The Washington rule stands the test of time: The principles

never change–only the principals.

– Judge Bill Clark was President Reagan's deputy secretary of state in 1981 and

national security adviser from 1982-83, among other posts. Dr. Paul Kengor is

co-author (with Pat Clark Doerner) of Clark's biography, [6]"The Judge: William

P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand." Dr. Kengor is also professor of political

science at Grove City College, executive director of [7]The Center for Vision &

Values, and author of the New York Times best-selling book, [8]"The Communist:

Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor."

© 2012 by The Center for Vision Values at Grove City College. The views &


expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City


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