EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year, shortly before the United States and its allies invaded Iraq, Vice President Cheney asked the French ambassador a pointed question: “Is France an ally or an adversary of the United States?” In the 1980s, President Reagan wondered the same thing.
Here’s an excerpt from the new book by NR’s John J. Miller and his co-author Mark Molesky, Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France. (For more information on the authors and their book, plus daily commentary on French politics and history, visit their website here.)
In March of 1986, the government of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi sent an urgent order to its agents in Europe: Launch terrorist attacks inflicting “maximum and indiscriminate casualties” on American civilian and military targets. Although the United States decoded the ghastly message and went on alert, a bomb exploded early in the morning of April 5 in the bathroom of La Belle, a West Berlin discotheque patronized by American GIs. The blast killed two U.S. Army sergeants and a Turkish woman. Another 229 people, including 78 Americans, were injured. There could be no doubt about Qaddafi’s involvement. A few days before the detonation, British intelligence had intercepted a cable from Libya’s bureau in East Berlin boasting of “a joyous event” that was about to occur. After the attack, the British intercepted another indiscreet communiqué in which Qaddafi’s henchmen gleefully reported on their success and even mentioned the time it had taken place.
Here at last was a clear set of fingerprints. The Americans had suspected for a long time that Libya was sponsoring terrorism, but until the West Berlin bombing they had lacked irrefutable evidence. Within days of the deadly explosion, President Ronald Reagan called for a hard-hitting response and asked the Pentagon to draw up a list of potential targets in Libya, included military facilities and terrorist training camps. “We’re going to defend ourselves,” Reagan promised at an April 9 press conference.
Defending the United States, however, would require international cooperation. Aware of her role as America’s staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately granted Reagan’s request to unleash U.S. Air Force planes based in Great Britain. “The U.K. came through like gang-busters,” said Navy secretary John Lehman.
The French were not so cooperative. President Francois Mitterand flatly denied permission for U.S. warplanes to fly over his country on their way to Libya. “The refusal upset me,” wrote Reagan in his memoirs, “because I believed all civilized nations were in the same boat when it came to resisting terrorism.” Others remembered the incident with more anger: “Everyone connected with the attack was furious with [Mitterand’s] casual refusal,” wrote Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
Reagan believed that economics lay behind the rebuff: “France conducted a lot of business with Libya and was typically trying to play both sides.” Whatever the motive, French obstruction proved more of an inconvenience than an impediment. American planes on their way to Libya were forced to take a much longer route around the Iberian Peninsula and through the Straits of Gibraltar, adding about 1200 extra miles to the journey and six or seven hours of additional flight time. (Spain also refused to let American planes into its airspace because it did not then support military responses to terrorism.) For American pilots based in Britain, the operation lasted more than 14 hours from takeoff to touchdown, making it the longest fighter mission in U.S. history.
Although two American airmen were killed over Tripoli, the mission was a success. The attack on Libya weakened Qaddafi at home and reduced the number of terrorist incidents linked to him in later years. (There were two awful exceptions: The bombings of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and UTA Flight 772 over Niger in 1989.) Reagan showed that a swift and muscular response to terrorism could work. Yet France remained defiant. In a fit of moral equivalence following the raid, the foreign ministry announced that it “deplores the intolerable escalation of terrorism which has led to an action of reprisal which in itself renews the chain of violence.”
The war on terrorism is often said to have begun on September 11, 2001, but in truth it began decades earlier. In a fundamental way, 9/11 was a new Pearl Harbor awakening Americans to a serious and ongoing problem that the Europeans had failed to contain. The twin challenges of Islamic radicals committing terrorist atrocities and rogue states plotting to acquire weapons of mass destruction could no longer be overlooked. What would happen if a man like Qaddafi got his hands on a nuclear device? Surely the result would be much worse than a Berlin disco bombing. During the post-Cold War era, however, the Americans and the French would spend much of their time not arguing about how to confront these menaces, but whether to confront them at all. In the end, they would find themselves bitterly confronting each other.
–The story continues in Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France, by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky.