Reagan Would Not Support Obama on Libya

For some conservatives, the most sacred initials in policymaking are WWRRD: What Would Ronald Reagan Do? Whenever America encounters a situation similar to one faced by the Gipper, they say the proper course is to follow his lead. Barack Obama’s undeclared war in Libya is such a situation, but I’m afraid Republicans are drawing the wrong analogy.

When Libyan rebels rose up against Muammar Qaddafi, some Republicans invoked Reagan’s memory to goad Obama into joining the fight. After all, Reagan bombed Qaddafi; surely, they reasoned, we should bomb him again. Some bona fide conservatives – including my friend Dr. Paul Kengor – have written confusing words on the subject. Col. Ronald Sable argued that, unlike Reagan, Obama waited too long to intervene. Even Michael Reagan has devoted two separate columns to contrasting Obama’s inaction with his father’s decisive military response.

And some bloggers have been hopelessly contradictory.

It is true that Ronald Reagan had two military confrontations with the man he called “the mad dog of the Middle East.” However, neither of them apply to this action. There is, however, an unfortunate precedent for this Libyan adventure.

Libya Isn’t Libya

Ironically, an aide to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-INo, clarified one difference between Libya ’86 and Libya ’11: Reagan notified Congressional leaders of his intentions and said if they had any objection, he would call off the raid. Obama waited until Congress went on recess to launch a war after consulting with the Arab League, the United Nations, and NATO.

More importantly, it would be more accurate to say Reagan twice responded to Libyan aggression.

In 1981, Qaddafi attempted to evict the U.S. military from a vast expanse of ocean waters he claimed in the name of Libya. That August, Ronald Reagan ordered the military to fly over the Gulf of Sidra as usual. If Libyan planes opened fire, he authorized American flyers to follow them “all the way into their hangar.” Two Libyan jets did just that and were quickly shot down. This was a purely defensive move, retaliation for a direct act of violence against the U.S. military.

True, Reagan bombed Qaddafi’s home compound in 1986, as soon as intelligence proved the dictator had ordered the bombing of a German night club that killed two U.S. soldiers. Qaddafi only escaped with his life because Italy’s socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi tipped him off – much the way Osama bin Laden escaped U.S. missile attacks more than a decade later.

However, this, too, was retaliation. If regime change were Reagan’s goal, he had 32 more months in office to finish the job. Instead, he wrote, “After the attack on Tripoli, we didn’t hear much more from Qaddafi’s terrorists.” [1]

The lesson: The United States will never hesitate to defend itself, but “she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Obviously, neither of these applies in the current case in Libya. No one has attacked a U.S. soldier. In fact, Republicans crowed that Qaddafi had reversed himself on WMDs after the invasion of Iraq. The United States and its allies spent the last few years rehabilitating Qaddafi – and buying his oil.

Reagan’s actions against Libya are clearly inapplicable. The historical parallel from the Reagan years is Lebanon.

Reagan’s “Most Anguishing Regret”

Reagan’s anomalous, nation-building mistake was his intervention in Lebanon. It was, by all accounts, the biggest foreign policy failure of his presidency.

Reagan entered the Lebanese morass for a variety of reasons: a desire to curb Soviet influence in the region by taming Syria, his support for Israel, and the ever-elusive quest to create a peaceful and stable Middle East.

The PLO had taken refuge in southern Lebanon after being expelled from Jordan in 1970, and soon enjoyed nearly as much firepower as the legally constituted, Christian government. Equal militias began to form along religious lines, ripping the fabric of Lebanese society apart. Reagan first deployed U.S. troops to Lebanon on August 25, 1982, as part of a multinational force that peacefully relocated the PLO from Israel’s northern border to Tunisia. The troops left on September 10. Reagan believed this act of goodwill would induce the Israelis to accept a grand U.S.-brokered peace plan that allowed for a Palestinian homeland on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip overseen by Jordan – but Israel declined, and Jordan had no interest in administering the territories. Meanwhile, Lebanon fell into political upheaval through the assassination of newly elected prime minister Bashir Gemayel, the slaughters at Sabra and Shatila, and Israel’s invasion of West Beirut.

Reagan ordered the Marines back to the area with reinforcements, ostensibly to prevent attacks on the Lebanese government now led by Gemayel’s brother, Amin. But the government was not the only armed faction in Lebanon – it was not even the best armed faction. In practice, Reagan had chosen sides in a Middle Eastern civil war that involved at least six separate militias comprised of four distinct religious groups (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Druze). U.S. soldiers quickly became isolated. On April 18, a bombing killed 63 people at the U.S. embassy in Beirut.

American diplomats worked out another agreement with the Gemayel government in May establishing the withdrawal of all troops – but it had no binding effect on any of the other militias.

The war ground on. After two American soldiers were killed in August 1983, Congress invoked the War Powers Resolution. In September, they gave Reagan a deadline of 18 months. Hostilities would not last that long.

On October 23, 1983, Hezbollah exploded a truck bomb in front of the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines. A separate bomb killed 58 of our French allies. The public backlash was swift and immediate.

Reagan initially dug in. Just days after the bombing, Reagan asked in a televised address, “Can the United States, or the free world, for that matter, stand by and see the Middle East incorporated into the Soviet bloc?” Warships off the coast began shelling Druze forces. As late as February 1984, Reagan told the Wall Street Journal, “If we get out, it also means the end of Lebanon.” Three days later, he insisted there was “no reason to turn our backs and cut-and-run.” Doing so, he said, would send one unmistakably clear “signal to terrorists.”[2]

Many of Reagan’s advisers had a different analysis of Lebanon’s relative strategic importance. National Security Adviser Robert “Bud” MacFarlane said, “If Lebanon disappeared, it wouldn’t affect the United States’ security interests very much.”[3] Dick Cheney criticized Reagan over Lebanon.[4] John McCain opposed the mission in its entirety. Secretary of State George Schultz implored the other attendees of one National Security Council meeting, “If I ever say send in the Marines again, somebody shoot me.”[5]

In February 1984, with prodding from Casper Weinberger and others, Reagan began withdrawals. They were complete before the end of March. The Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale attempted to raise Reagan’s handling of Lebanon on several occasions during the 1984 election, to no avail.

Six years later, Reagan would write, “Sending our boys to that place is the most anguishing regret of my years as president.”[6]

Osama’s Lesson

Although staying in the quagmire of Lebanon would have been a mistake, Reagan proved all-too-correct about the lessons terrorists would draw from withdrawal. In his 1997 interview with Peter Arnett, Osama bin Laden cited “successive defeats in Vietnam, Beirut, Aden, and Somalia” as proof of “the low spiritual morale of the American fighters.” This led him to believe it was time to strike the beast.

His words indicate another reason for reticence about entering foreign wars: even cutting our losses can bring additional losses.

Democrats Who Do Not Learn From History Are Destined….

Now, Barack Obama has placed troops in harm’s way in the middle of a Muslim civil war on behalf of a group of “rebels” who contain at least some al-Qaeda members and other assorted extremists. Obama has given conflicting reasons for our entry and purpose. How this action serves American interests is a mystery to everyone involved. More than two decades later, on the eve of the Libyan offensive, Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed George Schultz: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Perhaps Obama’s unconstitutional, probably impeachable entrée into a Muslim civil war will become a shining foreign policy success. Who knows? No one – including Obama. But I am not sanguine about the prospects. Republicans, happy to beat on a Democratic president, should have thought out the political carom. If good comes out of our actions, Obama alone will receive the credit. If it leads to increased instability, terror, and extremism, the media will see to it that the Republicans who browbeat Obama into action will bear no small measure of the blame.

Ronald Reagan learned about muddled heads and unintended consequences. As he slowly began to yield to calls for redeployment, Reagan wrote to William F. Buckley Jr. that the Middle East is “not really a place – it’s a state of mind. A disordered mind.”[7] Specifically addressing the negotiations over Lebanon, he confided to his diary, “Sometimes I wonder if we are destined to witness Armageddon”[8]

Reagan learned his lesson about sending U.S. soldiers to Middle Eastern civil wars that are of no strategic importance to the United States. When will Obama? For that matter, when will Republicans?


1. Ronald Reagan. An American Life. (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1990), p. 520. In fact, Qaddafi ordered the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988; however, intelligence did not prove his role until several years later. Qaddafi no longer publicly supported terror as he had before.

2. Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. (NY: PublicAffairs, 2000), p. 398.

3. Cannon, p. 394.

4. Richard Reeves. President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005), p. 202.

5. Steven F. Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989. (Three Rivers Press, 2010), p. 350.

6. Ronald Reagan. Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches. (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 185.

7. Ronald Reagan. Reagan: A Life in Letters. (NY: Free Press, 2003), p. 448.

8. Ronald Reagan. The Reagan Diaries. (NY: Harper Collins, 2007), p. 19.