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
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT