By David Kurlander

President Biden last week endorsed efforts by congressional Democrats to rein in presidential war powers. Biden’s seeming willingness to limit his own authority comes after he authorized strikes on Iranian proxy groups in Syria, prompting bipartisan criticism in the Senate. Another set of airstrikes in April 1986—President Reagan’s retaliatory attacks against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya—elicited a similar legislative referendum on presidential war powers. The dynamics surrounding Reagan’s limited involvement of Congress in the strikes are a reminder of the perennial tug-of-war over how to order military intervention against hostile regimes.

The relationship between Libya and the United States hit a low ebb in early 1986. Over the previous year, Gaddafi helped terrorist Abu Nidal, whose Fatah group violently pursued Palestinian liberation, with a number of bombings. U.S. intelligence blamed Gaddafi and Nidal for concurrent December 1985 attacks on airport terminals in Vienna and Rome, as well as a botched hijacking of an EgyptAir flight that led to the killings of 38 passengers. 

In January 1986, President Reagan issued an executive order levying strict economic sanctions in response to the airport attacks. In an East Room news conference announcing the punishment, Reagan took a hard rhetorical line against the Libyan leader: “Qaddafi deserves to be treated as a pariah in the world community.” 

The sanctions, however, did not stop the hostilities. The Libyans—longtime buyers of Soviet weapons—installed USSR-built SAM-5 missiles in the contested Gulf of Sirte only weeks after Reagan’s announcement. Reagan responded by sending the Sixth Fleet into the Gulf to conduct military exercises. On March 24th, 1986, Libya fired at planes associated with the Fleet. The Fleet responded by bombing Libyan boats and missile installations. Some members of Congress, including then-Senator Biden, criticized the response. Per the New York Times: “[Biden] argued that it was pointless to attack relatively sophisticated weapons like the attack vessels and missile sites as a means of combating terrorism, in which such weapons play no role.”

The retaliation was a preview of things to come. On April 5th, a bomb tied to Nidal detonated at the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, killing two American Army sergeants and a young Turkish woman. Gaddafi denied Libyan involvement, but the U.S. intercepted radio messages from Libya to diplomats in Germany ordering the attack. There was virtually no doubt that Reagan would respond. 

The anticipation of a military response brought up longstanding debates about Reagan’s often-unilateral use of war powers, from the 1983 invasion of Grenada to the burgeoning Iran-Contra Affair. On April 11th, two lawmakers faced off on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour to debate the role of Congress in the expected retaliation. One was dovish California Representative George Brown, who had long spoken out against American anticommunist interventions. The other was Wyoming Representative Dick Cheney, already one of Washington’s most fervent defenders of executive branch authority over military action. 

Brown and Cheney argued over whether Congress should be meaningfully involved in planning the bombing, a stipulation ostensibly required by the 1973 War Powers Resolution, put in place after the excesses of the Vietnam War. “This is a clear-cut case where the President as Commander in Chief, in the interest of protecting American lives and wielding the military authority that we’ve given him previously, is justified in taking whatever action he deems appropriate in discussing the details with us after the fact,” Cheney argued. Brown disagreed: “In the case that we are planning a military strike against Libya, if we are, that’s an act of war and it shouldn’t take place unless the Congress is consulted.” 

Brown and Cheney then engaged in a broader colloquy about the utility of using air power to fight terrorism at all. “You’re saying that because the Libyans were involved in throwing a bomb into a cafe in Berlin that the United States is justified, we’ll say, in throwing a bomb into a cafe in Libya. I don’t happen to agree with that,” he levied at Cheney. “George, nobody’s suggesting we bomb cafes in Libya,” Cheney cut in. “The President has been very judicious and very measured in his response and his use of force against terrorism.”  

Three days later, on April 14th, Reagan gave the green light for F-111 Aardvark bombers stationed in Britain to join Sixth Fleet planes in bombing strategic targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, including Gaddafi’s headquarters. The strikes destroyed several of Libya’s military training and command centers and killed 30 Libyan civilians. Gaddafi narrowly escaped injury. 

Reagan honored to some degree the War Powers Resolution. He met with 15 congressional leaders three hours before the bombing—certainly not enough engagement from Brown’s perspective, but more than enough according to Cheney’s framework. None of the lawmakers expressed serious reservations about the response and the planes, already headed toward their targets, moved forth. 

The bombing took place during primetime on a Monday night—effectively the first televised airstrikes in American history. President Reagan offered an aggressive Oval Office speech defending his actions: “I’m sure that today most Libyans are ashamed and disgusted that this man has made their country a synonym for barbarism around the world…[Gaddafi] counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong.”

During his Oval Office remarks, Reagan defended his brief congressional meeting. He used the same legal rationale for the attack as the Biden administration referenced in their Syria bombing—Article 51 of the United Nations Charter: “Nothing shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” The “self-defence” statute helped to explain the reasoning behind Reagan’s late notice to congressional leaders—this was not a full-fledged act of war, but rather an in-the-moment reaction to an imminent threat. 

After MacNeil/Lehrer carried Reagan’s address live, Representative Brown returned to the show. Brown didn’t directly declare Reagan had broken the law, but he reminded viewers that the Article 51 justification was “the same rationale that we’re using for arming the Contras in South America.” Brown offered a further warning about what these types of responses actually wrought: “This action will have to be judged more on the basis of whether or not it comports with American principles, any concept of an international rule of law, whether it will tend to reduce our actual security and enhance terrorism in the world.” 

Brown found few allies in Congress. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, who was certainly not above criticizing Reagan’s foreign policy, solely blamed Gaddafi, saying, “This all started because of the evil heart of a bad man.” In the Senate, Biden retreated from his criticism of the March incursion, offering support for the strikes. Then-Minority Leader Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, tried to introduce a bill formalizing the precise ways that a president should engage with Congress in advance of a strike. “Are we going to do this again and again?” Byrd asked. “I’m concerned that there’s no end to that approach.” The legislation went nowhere. 

The strangeness of the relative quiet led Representative Robert Torricelli to write a legal article the following year in the Pace Law Review entitled “The War Powers Resolution after the Libya Crisis.” Torricelli argued that Congress was wary of intervening with high-tech, rapid fire air strikes. “Congress’ ability to exercise a direct influence on foreign and defense policy has been weakened by the march of technology,” he wrote. He encouraged congressional pushback against Reagan’s policies, but acknowledged ruefully that “Congress, for the most part, prefers a President to take the lead on foreign policy.”

The validity of Article 51 invocations—and the extent to which Congress should be consulted before presidents authorize airstrikes—has remained a potent legal issue, playing roles in debates over the Iraq War, President Obama’s own 2011 intervention in Libya, and in former President Trump’s strike last January against Iranian General Soleimani. Perhaps President Biden and congressional Democrats can finally bring more clarity to the legality and morality of air strikes. 

For a remarkably clear-eyed account of the historical U.S.-Libya dynamic, read Ronald Bruce St. John’s 2002 Libya and the United States: Two Centuries of Strife. For a thrilling polemic about Reagan’s second term, check out Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus’s 1988 Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988

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