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Mediterranean Quarterly 11.1 (2000) 111-135

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U.S. Measures against Libya since the Explosion of Pan Am Flight 103

F. Ugboaja Ohaegbulam

Over the past three decades, casting leaders of foreign countries as Hitlers and their countries as evil empires has become a staple of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have tended to use such characterizations as a shorthand justification for a number of invasions, bombing sorties, and military buildups. Conducting foreign policy in this fashion, however, can have serious drawbacks. Castigating foreign leaders and America's enemies as evil personified raises the stakes of operations and leaves little room for a nuanced and often more practical approach to conflict resolution. America's troubled relations with Libya have been a victim of this approach for about thirty years.

Since the 1970s, successive U.S. administrations have attempted by this approach and various other means--diplomatic, economic, and by limited military action--to coerce Libya into changing its ways and complying with international norms. Specifically, the administrations have sought to modify the international behavior of the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, who seized power on 1 September 1969 by toppling Libya's pro-Western King Idris. Qaddafi thereafter used Libya's burgeoning revenues to harass perceived Libyan enemies, to export revolution, and to support radical movements and terrorist groups. At the same time, Qaddafi progressively pursued an independent policy, which U.S. officials characterized as openly hostile to U.S. and Western interests in North Africa and the Middle East. 1 As a result, [End Page 111] U.S. administrations campaigned during the 1970s and early 1980s to isolate Libya politically and economically by cutting off economic relations with it and by encouraging other members of the international community to do so.

After Ronald Reagan became president in January 1981, Libya became a major focal point of American foreign policy, especially as it related to combating international terrorism. From 1981 to the end of his administration in January 1989, Reagan escalated the rhetoric and the economic and military pressures against the regime of the Libyan leader. His calculated measures, however, failed to change Qaddafi's international behavior or to remove him from power. Rather, they produced angry reactions and retaliatory responses from the Libyan head of state.

In their approach to Qaddafi's continued defiance, Reagan's successors, Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, expanded U.S. measures by successfully seeking and obtaining multilateral measures--arms embargoes and limited economic and travel sanctions--against Libya under UN auspices. In 1996, the U.S. Congress took steps beyond those of the executive branch to compel Libya to comply with international norms by enacting the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. Until April 1999, when Tripoli began to show signs of wanting to end its international isolation, the situation and Qaddafi's nonconformist international behavior remained largely unchanged. UN sanctions have been suspended but not, as of late 1999, permanently lifted. U.S. unilateral measures remain in effect.

This essay examines the circumstances, goals, objectives, and operation of the series of measures the United States has taken unilaterally and in cooperation with other nations against Libya since the bombing of Pan Am Airways flight 103 in December 1988, alleged to have been carried out by Libyan agents. It assesses the impact of the coercive measures imposed on Libya and explores why, in spite of punitive measures, Libya's international behavior remained largely consistent from 1969, when Qaddafi seized power, until the present. Finally, it identifies some ramifications of the entire situation for the United States and the international community. [End Page 112]

Origins of U.S. Disenchantment with Libya

America's disenchantment with Libya is rooted in the rise of Colonel Qaddafi to the executive head of the Islamic Republic of Libya in 1969 and in the radical foreign policy stance he adopted immediately upon assuming power. 2 From his independent foreign policy approach and anti-Western rhetoric, it became apparent to U.S. officials, beginning with the three administrations that preceded Reagan's, that...


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