United States

Libya Table of Contents

In the 1980s, Qadhafi came to regard the United States as the leader of Western imperialism and capitalism. He vigorously condemned several United States policies--including military and economic support for Israel and support for a political settlement in the Middle East; resistance to the establishment of a new world economic order between resource producers and consumers; and support for relatively conservative, Western-oriented countries of the Third World, particularly Arab and African states. Since the Revolution, United States-Libyan relations have been limited to relatively modest commercial and trade agreements.

Libya has attempted to influence the United States through American oil companies operating within Libyan boundaries. Constant pressure on the companies concerning pricing and government participation eventually resulted in the Libyan state's assumption of a controlling interest in some firms and nationalizing others. The United States was the primary target of the oil boycott that Libya and other Arab states invoked after the October 1973 ArabIsraeli War.

In addition to conflicts caused by Libyan oil policies, the United States and Libya have disagreements over Libyan claims to territorial waters. Since 1973 Libya has considered the Gulf of Sidra as territorial waters. Beyond that, Libya claimed another twelve nautical miles (approximately twenty kilometers) of territorial waters. The United States refused to recognize Libya's claim, and this refusal became a recurrent cause for contention between the two countries. Under President Jimmy Carter, the United States armed forces were ordered not to challenge Libyan claims by penetrating into the claimed territory, even though relations deteriorated when, on December 2, 1979, the United States embassy in Tripoli was burned by demonstrators apparently influenced by the takeover of the United States embassy in Tehran. President Ronald Reagan's administration, however, was determined to assert the principle of free passage in international waters.

In 1981 President Reagan began taking action against Libya. On May 6, 1981, the Reagan administration ordered the closing of the Libyan People's Bureau in Washington, and twenty-seven Libyan diplomats were expelled from the United States for supporting international terrorism. Then, on August 19, 1981, two Libyan SU-22 fighters were shot down by United States F-14 jets during naval maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra. In December President Reagan called on the approximately 1,500 American citizens still living in Libya to leave or face legal action. In March 1982, oil imports from Libya were embargoed and technology transfer banned. In January 1986, Libyan assets in the United States were frozen as part of a series of economic sanctions against Libya.

United States-Libyan tensions erupted in April 1986. On April 5, Libyan agents planted a bomb in a Berlin nightclub frequented by United States service personnel. The explosion killed 2 people, 1 an American serviceman, and injured 204 others. In retaliation, on April 15, the United States launched air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi. As a result, a number of Libyan civilians, including Qadhafi's adopted infant daughter, were killed. Observers speculated that the attack was intended to kill the Libyan leader himself.

The air strikes were certainly intended to encourage the Libyan military to overthrow Qadhafi. However, the air strikes were opposed by virtually all segments of the population, who rallied behind their leader. Moreover, not only did Qadhafi thrive on the public attention but his determination to stand up to a superpower threat appeared to have enhanced his stature. Even the major opposition group abroad, the LNSF, denounced the use of force by foreign powers in dealing with Libya, as did the London-based Libyan Constitutional Union. In 1987, a year after the raid, it was still unclear whether the raids had succeeded in countering terrorism. Observers were not certain whether Libya had actually adopted a new policy with regard to supporting terrorism, which seemed to have diminished considerably, or merely learned how to avoid leaving fingerprints.

More about the Government of Libya.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress