When President Obama went on national television Monday night to defend launching a military assault on Libya, didn’t his address have a familiar ring? Muammar Gadhafi is a “tyrant,” Obama said, who “murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world, including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents.”
Twenty-five years ago next month, President Reagan addressed Americans after authorizing bombing raids on Libya. “He has ordered the murder of fellow Libyans in countless countries,” Reagan said. “He has sanctioned acts of terror in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East as well as the Western Hemisphere.”
What’s remarkable is that in the intervening quarter century, the aging Libyan ruler—the region’s longest reigning dictator, who would observe his forty-second year in power in 2011—managed to pull off one of the great political rehabilitations of all time. Just five years ago, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Riceannounced plans to reopen the US embassy in Tripoli, she gushed about the “excellent cooperation” and “historic decisions taken by Libya’s leadership.”
Libyan relations with the West first started to falter after Gadhafi overthrew King Idris al-Sanusi in 1969. In 1978, following an escalation in Libyan terrorist activities, the U.S. banned arms sales to Libya. One year later, it added the Jamahiriyaa to the list of state sponsors of terrorism and made the country ineligible for U.S. economic assistance.
Things got even worse after the election of Reagan, who famously dubbed Gadhafi the “mad dog of the Middle East.” By 1981, his administration had severed diplomatic relations and shut down the Libyan embassy in Washington. In 1982, the U.S. banned the import of Libyan crude, and then expanded the embargo to include refined petroleum products in 1985. Finally in 1986, following the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin in which two U.S. servicemen were killed, the U.S. froze Libyan assets, prohibited all financial transactions between the two countries, and bombed Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli.
Europe was less inclined to isolate Libya economically, but after the slaying of Yvonne Fletcher, a British police officer, in 1984, and the downing of two commercial airliners in 1988 and 1989, the UN Security Council finally imposed multilateral sanctions in 1992. The sanctions, which prohibited air travel to and from Libya as well as the supply of aviation service or parts, effectively banished Libya to a decade of economic hardship and cultural isolation.
By early 2003, however, Gadhafi was getting a second chance. Relations began to thaw with the start of backchannel negotiations between American, British and Libyan officials. In a remarkable PR effort led by Gadhafi’s second son, Saif al-Islam, the Libyan regime sold itself to the West as a cooperative player ready to abandon its WMD program, renounce terrorism, and take responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie. By the mid 2000s, Libya had shed the UN sanctions, transformed its backwater capital into a giant construction site, and begun the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with the U.S. Libya was officially removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2007. By 2009, it had secured the presidency of the UN General Assembly.
Gadhafi’s return to pariah status has been swift. After the regime used lethal force against Libyan protesters in February, the U.S. suspended diplomatic relations. On February 25, Washington imposed unilateral sanctions, and Britain and France followed suit. The UN Security Council voted 15-0 to slap Libya with an arms embargo, freeze Gadhafi’s foreign assets, and refer the Libyan leader to the International Criminal Court. The EU imposed its own arms embargo, and Italy, Libya’s primary trading partner, suspended its historic “Treaty of Friendship.” By early March, most Western countries had suspended ties with the Gadhafi regime.
Then the screws tightened further. On March 3, Obama urged Gadhafi to “step down from power and leave.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that, “someone waging war against his own people is no longer a negotiation partner for the European Union.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy went as far as recognizing the rebel leadership as the “legitimate representative” of Libya. On March 15, Britain, France, and Lebanon introduced a UN Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. The UN soon backed a no-fly zone, and an international alliance led by the U.S. Africa Command was preparing to disable Libya’s air defense capability.
In his address, Obama stopped short of committing the U.S. to use force to remove Gadhafi from power, citing the political and economic costs of such an escalation of the intervention. But he showed no interest in giving the Libyan regime another chance. “History,” Obama said, “is not on Gadhafi’s side.”
Ty McCormick is a Presidential Intern at the American University in Cairo. He contributes regularly to the Huffington Post.