Twenty-five years ago this past Saturday, US F-14A Tomcat fighters from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz shot down two Libyan Sukhoi fighter-bombers that had attacked the U.S. aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean Sea. Press coverage at the time criticized President Reagan because he was not awakened and notified of the military action, leading many to conclude this was yet another instance of the president being detached from important events. As with so many other myths about Ronald Reagan, the facts tell a very different story.
Given Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s welcome and more moderate policy approach of recent years, some may not remember just how bellicose Libyan statements and actions were in the 1980s. Col. Gadhafi had drawn a purported “Line of Death” in international waters in the northern Gulf of Sidra and said that he would shoot down any U.S. aircraft that went south of this line.
The U.S. Navy regularly conducts “Freedom of Navigation” operations around the world to establish rights of free passage through international waters, especially where nations make claims of sovereignty beyond their territorial waters (generally 12 miles from the coastline). In the summer of 1981, the Pentagon decided to conduct a “stair step” exercise in the Gulf of Sidra north of Libya, using progressively more assertive military actions to challenge Col. Gadhafi’s “Line of Death.” A full National Security Council meeting was held in the Cabinet Room at the White House on July 31, 1981, to brief Mr. Reagan on the exercise.
As legal counsel to the NSC, I attended the meeting because of potential War Powers Resolution ramifications if shots were fired. Vice Adm. Bob Foley, deputy chief of Naval Operations, conducted the briefing and described the series of steps the 6th Fleet intended to take. He laid out in detail the rules of engagement and made especially clear that commanders on the scene, and indeed pilots themselves, had the authority to respond and fire back if challenged by the Libyans. As the briefing proceeded, I made a note to ask the admiral later about one point I thought he had left unclear at a critical juncture.
As the president listened to the briefing, I wondered if he understood that the military was essentially testing whether he was comfortable with rules of engagement that did not require his involvement in the event that Libya challenged the exercise. Not all of his predecessors would have had that confidence in the military.
As the briefing neared conclusion, the issue arose of rules of engagement for pursuit of Libyan aircraft that had fired at U.S. aircraft. Mr. Reagan immediately stepped in and addressed the exact question I had written down: Could U.S. fighters pursue into Libyan airspace any Libyan planes that shot at them? Recently declassified minutes of the meeting indicate he replied with Reaganesque directness: If fired upon by the Libyans, U.S. aircraft had the authority to “chase them right into the hangar.”
After the customary five-day advance notice to airmen, the stair-step exercise began on Aug.18. The following day, when fired on by Libyan fighter-bombers, the Navy pilots responded precisely as had been planned in the event of Libyan attack. They shot down the Libyan aircraft over international waters, with no need to pursue them into Libyan airspace. While a case can be made that Mr. Reagan, who was in California at the time, should have been awakened for political reasons, the commander in chief had retired the evening before, well aware of what was taking place more than 5,000 miles away and what he had authorized the brave servicemen and women under his command to do if challenged.
I had the opportunity to work closely with Mr. Reagan over the four years that followed, through events such as the Soviet shootdown of a Korean airliner, difficult deployments in Beirut, the rescue operation in Grenada, and numerous challenges that arose from the carousel of Soviet leadership in those years. Throughout, I was struck with his ability to identify and focus in on the strategic, presidential facets of every issue brought to him for decision. Ronald Reagan came to Washington possessing rather than seeking a well-defined political philosophy, and he measured all presentations against the strategic elements of that philosophy.
Not only could Mr. Reagan speak to and connect with the public better than any leader of his time, but he was also an uncommonly attentive and discerning listener. The Great Communicator knew he had to be great on both sides of effective communication.
Robert M. Kimmitt, who served on the National Security Council staff from 1976-1985, is deputy secretary of the Treasury Department.