Skip to main content

Margaret Thatcher led in fighting terrorism

By Kiron K. Skinner, Special to CNN
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT