Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A cycle of revenge

[What follows is excerpted from an article by Paul Reynolds published on the BBC News website on this date in 2003:]

A Lockerbie-type atrocity in the war-inflicted world of today, might provoke a very different reaction from the superpowers.

A country which blew up an American airliner today could not expect the patient treatment accorded to Libya over the 15 years since Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie.

It could expect invasion.

What happened to Libya after Lockerbie is an example of how a crisis was dealt with by diplomacy, threats, sanctions and law. (...)

Such a broad approach would be unlikely today. We are living under different international rules since 9/11.

Back in 1988, under President Reagan, international terrorism was considered a problem, a plague even, but not a war.

Libya was an active player. In 1984, its "People's Bureau" in London had shot at demonstrators in the square outside, killing a policewoman standing with them.

In 1986, a bomb exploded in the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, used by US servicemen there. Libya was blamed.

And the United States, under Ronald Reagan, retaliated not by invading, but by raiding.

It sent 16 F111's based in Britain to attack and only narrowly missed getting Gaddafi himself, killing instead a young girl said to be his adopted daughter.

One interesting sidebar to that raid was the doubt expressed by the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In her memoirs she makes it clear that initially she had her reservations:

"I was worried that the US action might begin a cycle of revenge.

"I was concerned that there must be the right public justification for the action which was taken, otherwise we might just strengthen Gaddafi's standing."

Mrs Thatcher was worried about "an inclination to precipitate action in the United States, which was doubtless mirrored there by a perception of lethargy in Europe".

In the end, she swung behind her friend President Reagan and gave permission for the F111's to be used from their British base. (...)

At the time, war was not really contemplated.

Even Ronald Reagan, who could whip up small civil wars in Central America into a Soviet threat to the United States, was content to send in the jets.

So when the Pan Am plane was brought down over Lockerbie, there was no clear American strategy for dealing with international terrorism.

Pinprick attacks had been met with pinprick responses.

There had been invasions of Grenada and Panama was to follow but Libya was a bigger place, an Arab country and not in America's back yard.

There was, for President Bush senior, the added complication that nobody could be immediately blamed.

The suspicion in fact fell first on Syria and Iran.

An Iranian airliner had been shot down over the Gulf a few months earlier by the US Navy which thought itself under attack.

Lockerbie was felt to be revenge for that.

At that time Syria and Iran were close and attention turned to the Syrian sponsored Palestinian group, the PFLP-GC. It had been found by German police to be in possession of radio cassettes of the type used in the Lockerbie bombing.

Then the link was made to Libya through a circuit board sold by a Swiss firm, a bit of which was also found on the ground near Lockerbie.

In due course, one Libyan was found guilty by the Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands and another acquitted. Sanctions were imposed by the UN.

But there was no war. And Colonel Gaddafi remained in power.

He has had to pay a price.

He was isolated for years and became a minor actor on a stage which he wanted to bestride.

He had to admit blame, though in a roundabout way (accepting responsibility for the actions of Libyan government officials) and he is having to pay large amounts of money.

He might well think he got off cheaply considering what has happened in Iraq.

[RB: Eight years later, of course, Lockerbie was one of the pretexts for UK and US military and political support for the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.]

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