Scolding The Dog, Beating A Chicken

The relics of eccentricity remain. In the heart of Tripoli, Libya, in the middle of a military barracks behind walls within walls, a camel grazes and the droppings of other livestock litter a cracked sidewalk leading to the green brocade tent where Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi chooses to receive visitors. Nearby, the rubble-strewn house where he and his family once lived has been left much as it was after an American bombing raid shattered its facade and crumbled its ceiling in April 1986. But the man himself has mellowed. Gone are the rants of a dictator who seemed to be high on drugs or destiny or both. Gone are the distracted stares, the bizarre costumes. European diplomats and intelligence officials, a British minister of State and the Italian prime minister have found Libya's leader well briefed, reasonable and even cooperative in the war on terror. "The doctors must have got the dosage right," half-jokes a Western analyst who met Kaddafi in the old days.

What changed? Kaddafi was Washington's public enemy No. 1 in the 1980s, a sort of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden rolled into one: the embodiment of terrorism, the lunatic bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Is there something to be found in the military-political-economic prescription that quelled Kaddafi which might serve in today's showdowns with Saddam and Osama?

What clearly did not work was a dose of his own violent medicine: the ferocious U.S. bombing attack of 1986. Yet there's a persistent myth that the raid, which killed 41 Libyans including Kaddafi's 15-month-old adopted daughter, somehow subdued the Libyan leader. "After the '86 bombing, Kaddafi lowered his profile on sponsoring terrorism altogether," says Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel. In fact, after the 1986 bombing, which was largely carried out by U.S. F-111s flying from British bases, Kaddafi's focus merely shifted. Instead of openly supporting Palestinian terrorist groups targeting Israelis, he covertly supported terrorists as diverse as the Irish Republican Army and the renegade Japanese Red Army willing to target Americans and Britons. As the Rand Corp.' s Bruce Hoffman writes, "rather than deterring Muammar Kaddafi, the attacks goaded him to further excesses."

The Reagan administration had come into office in 1981 gunning for the eccentric Libyan leader, even shooting down two of his warplanes. At the time, most of the anti-American terrorism in the Middle East was coming from Iran and Syria. But there's an old Arab proverb: "When you want to scold the dog, beat the chicken." And Kaddafi's role was the chicken's. According to former U.S. intelligence officials, he was supposed to be the example that taught a lesson to the Ayatollah Khomeini and Hafez Assad.

After terrorists with Libyan connections attacked El-Al ticket counters in Rome and Vienna at the end of 1985, leaving an American child among the dead, Washington blasted Libyan naval vessels, warplanes and antiaircraft batteries. A few weeks later, when terrorists blew up a Berlin disco, killing one American and one Turkish woman, Washington intercepted an order for the attack from Libya. That triggered the U.S. strike on Tripoli and Benghazi, the largest bombing raid, at that point, since the Vietnam War. "Today we have done what we had to do," President Ronald Reagan said. "If necessary, we shall do it again."

Tough talk, to be sure. But the next year was "the bloodiest year for terrorist incidents since we began compiling such figures," the State Department concluded. Kaddafi started sending massive arms shipments to the Irish Republican Army to attack the British. By 1988 groups linked to Kaddafi were striking all over the map. An American service club in Naples, Italy, was blown up, killing five people, including a U.S. servicewoman. A hotel in Sudan was attacked and a British family of four slaughtered. Yet the Reagan administration still contended in November 1988 that "these data do not reflect a failed policy" and the Tripoli bombing was "a watershed event in the world's fight against terrorist-supporting states." A month later Pan Am 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. The following year Kaddafi's agents also blew up a French airliner over Africa, killing 171 people, including the wife of a U.S. ambassador.

What finally forced Kaddafi to change his ways? Criminal investigators in Britain and the United States got the goods on Libyan involvement in the Pan Am 103 bombing. The French did the same in the attack on their plane. Then the United Nations imposed draconian sanctions, and eventually at least some of the accused were brought to trial. "It was a diplomatic exercise which we never broke off, and it turned out successfully," says one of the senior British diplomats who had worked on the case in the early 1990s. What worked on Kaddafi might never have worked on Saddam or Osama. But as the war on terror continues, there is a central lesson to be remembered from the bloody record after 1986. It's the one taught to doctors by Hippocrates: First, do no harm.

Copyright 2003 Newsweek: not for distribution outside of Newsweek Inc.

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