Skip to main content

Margaret Thatcher led in fighting terrorism

By Kiron K. Skinner, Special to CNN
updated 1:09 PM EDT, Thu April 11, 2013
Former world leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan met many times as partners in diplomacy and policy-making and developed a public friendship. "We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man. And I have lost a dear friend," Thatcher said at Reagan's funeral in 2004. Here, the two at the House of Commons in London on November 28, 1978. Former world leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan met many times as partners in diplomacy and policy-making and developed a public friendship. "We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man. And I have lost a dear friend," Thatcher said at Reagan's funeral in 2004. Here, the two at the House of Commons in London on November 28, 1978.
HIDE CAPTION
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
Thatcher and Reagan's friendship
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kiron Skinner: Margaret Thatcher gave crucial support to anti-terror efforts
  • She says British prime minister backed Reagan's retaliation against Libya
  • Skinner: Thatcher was an early, prescient voice on terrorism's threat to the West

Editor's note: Kiron K. Skinner is director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for International Relations and Politics and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Along with Serhiy Kudelia, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Condoleezza Rice, she wrote "The Strategy of Campaigning: Lessons From Ronald Reagan and Boris Yeltsin."

(CNN) -- Operation El Dorado Canyon, authorized by President Ronald Reagan and launched on April 14, 1986, entailed the bombing of military and terrorist installations in Tripoli, Libya. The attack was ordered partly in retaliation for Libya's role in the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that claimed the life of two U.S. servicemen and a Turkish citizen while injuring more than 200 people, including many Americans.

Reagan also described the U.S. attack on Libya as a "pre-emptive action ... (designed to) diminish Col. (Moammar Gadhafi's) capacity to export terror." He warned, "If necessary, we shall do it again."

Criticized by Western European allies, the U.S. maneuver was endorsed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Speaking at the House of Commons on April 15, she reasoned that "Article 51 of the U.N. Charter specifically recognizes the right of self-defense. In view of Libya's promotion of terrorism, the failure of peaceful means to deter it and the evidence that further attacks were threatened, I replied to the (U.S.) president that we would support action directed against specific Libyan targets. ..."

Kiron K. Skinner
Kiron K. Skinner

Since her passing Monday, Margaret Hilda Thatcher's role in the unraveling of the Cold War has been widely assessed. Indeed, her declaration the year before Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet general secretary presaged the future: "I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together."

Less well recognized, however, is Thatcher's admonition about the gathering threat of international terrorism. Supporting Reagan's Libya raid was a tough call. Despite the escalation in state-sponsored terrorism in the 1980s, France refused over-flight rights for the F-111 bomber that would undertake the strike against Libya, and the leaders of Germany, Italy and Spain refused to assist the U.S. effort. Arguments against involvement in the conflict included possible Libyan reprisals on Western European targets, disruption of financial transactions with Libya, risks of greater Libyan-Soviet collaboration and the encouragement of U.S. militarism.

Denis Healey, a leader of the Labour Party's shadow government, and Dr. David Owen, leader of the Social Democrats and former Labour foreign secretary, were among the many British politicians who denounced Thatcher's stance. A Gallup Poll at the time revealed that about 65% of the British public questioned for the survey disapproved of the U.S. raid.

Even Thatcher's defense of the U.S. action was not unqualified. Four days before the attack, Reagan noted in his diary that she had sent him "a long message pledging support but expressing concern about possible civilian casualties."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In his memoir, Secretary of State George Shultz recalls that "Prime Minister Thatcher said yes to our request for use of U.S. F-111s from U.S. bases in Britain, but she made it clear that we needed to make public our evidence against (Gadhafi), that we should limit the targets to those with clear terrorist connections, and that our retaliation should be 'proportionate.' "

On December 27, 1985, 20 people had been killed, including five Americans, when the El Al ticket counters were bombed at the Rome and Vienna airports. The Reagan administration considered Abu Nidal a terrorist organization, and declared that it had undertaken the attacks with support from Gadhafi. The Libyan leader reportedly called the bombings "heroic." Reagan responded on January 7, 1986, with an executive order that imposed restrictions on trade with Libya.

Thatcher and Reagan: Political soulmates
How Thatcher demanded respect
Remembering Britain's 'Iron Lady'
Nancy Reagan: Thatcher had a soft side

On March 24, while undertaking peaceful naval exercises in the Gulf of Sidra, U.S. forces were struck by Libyan surface-to-air missiles. The United States returned fire, targeting Libyan military installations. By the time the discotheque was bombed in West Berlin, the pattern of Libya-supported terrorism and aggression toward the United States was incontrovertible. However, Thatcher alone would stand with Reagan as he sought to stop Gadhafi.

The retaliation against Libya didn't stop the terrorist threat. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. The 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground were killed by a bomb attack, which the Reagan administration blamed on Gadhafi.

It was not until April 1999 that the Libyan government turned over the suspects, who were brought to trial in the Netherlands. And it was not until 2003 that Gadhafi's government took responsibility for the atrocity and agreed to pay compensation to the victims. Gadhafi claimed, however, that he never ordered the bombing.

Despite Libya's ongoing acts of terrorism and the growing global threat from radical Islam in the 1980s and 1990s, many European and American leaders were loath to contend that Gadhafi's actions were anything more than isolated incidents. Thatcher's statement on April 15, 1986, the day after the U.S. strike in Libya was, prescient: "Libya has been behind much of it (terrorism) and was planning more."

In the current era of U.S. drone warfare, Thatcher's nuanced support for air attacks on terrorists and their installations is worth reviewing. By making the case that the United States had the right to self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, she was positioning Western responses to the emerging war against terrorists in the context of an international legal framework.

Thatcher repeatedly called for careful targeting in air raids to protect innocent human life, and she was deeply concerned about preventing retaliation from turning into military escalation. She was clear-eyed about a threat that many could not see while the Cold War still raged. "Terrorism is a scourge of the modern age," she cautioned.

Those who currently question whether the West is in a global war against terrorism and who would prefer not to speak of the tragedy of Benghazi would do well to review Thatcher's stance.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kiron K. Skinner.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT