Sunday, April 3, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Déjà vu all over again.
I can’t help thinking about what coulda and woulda been had the United States been successful 25 years ago when we made a nighttime bombing run on Moammar Gadhafi’s house, tent and office. It was a move to retaliate for the Libyan dictator’s involvement in a West German nightclub bombing that took the lives of two people, including an American serviceman.
Had we the foresight in 1986 that matches the hindsight of so many of America’s present-day critics, a successful mission would have prevented the downing of airplanes full of Americans and many terrorist acts around the world that were conceived, promoted and paid for by the Libyan strongman. As it was, Gadhafi’s daughter was killed, some in his family injured, but the colonel escaped.
I have been thinking about the raid for several reasons. First is the call we keep hearing by politicians on the far right and left to consider impeaching President Barack Obama for starting a war in Libya without congressional approval. Those folks are shocked, absolutely shocked — as if we were attacking Casablanca instead of Tripoli — that a president would consider a dark-of-the-night mission in a foreign land without putting it through the public relations machine that is Congress.
If the truth be told, most of the folks on Capitol Hill are grateful that the president has done the right thing without seeking their approval. Their approval could come at a heavy political cost — which they abhor — and could take so long to obtain that any surprise or advantage would be lost, and so many more lives would be forfeited while debate raged on.
This is not to say that I am against Congress approving acts of war. I am all for that check and balance. I am also, though, for the concept that one size does not fit all as well as the theory that there are exceptions to every rule.
The president’s involvement with our allies in creating a no-fly zone to help prevent the massacre of Libyans by the man who is supposed to protect them is an action most Americans would expect of our president, both on humanitarian and national security grounds. And in hindsight it is safe and, perhaps, politically palatable to criticize President Obama now that it appears no one else had to stick his neck out in the decision-making process.
And that takes me back to April 1986.
U.S. bombers took off secretly from bases in England, flying around Spain and France that denied us the airspace, a move that cost us our ability to get Gadhafi. At the same time, F-111s lifted off from the decks of either the USS America or the USS Coral Sea, both stationed a few hundred miles offshore in the Mediterranean. Together they performed a precision attack designed to get the dictator.
We know the mission was not successful in getting its primary target, although the case can be made that the bold move quieted Gadhafi, if only for a little while.
The lesson is not in how we used brilliant American technology and capabilities to show up at Gadhafi’s backdoor. Rather it is in the retelling of how it happened, and who knew what, and said what, as it happened. That is the light we must use to allow us to see how transparent these calls are for impeachment and how phony are those who make such demands.
The argument 25 years ago that raged in the situation room of the White House and in the bowels of the Pentagon was whether to commit ground troops — we call them boots on the ground today — in the effort to take Gadhafi out.
Adm. William J. Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had just shot down Lt. Col. Oliver North on his recommendation that the United States send a covert Navy SEAL team to land on the beaches and scope out Gadhafi’s house to guide the bomber attacks with precision. Having “eyes on” attached to boots on the ground is the best way to ensure a successful mission.
For good reasons at the time, Crowe said no to the troops and ordered the mission forward using our technological prowess only. Apparently, unbeknown to Crowe or not acknowledged by him, North already had Marine HALO teams on the ground within earshot of the intended targets.
In case you don’t understand what I am saying, what the Las Vegas Sun learned in April 1986 was that although the official military hand was saying “no,” the unofficial sleight of hand that belonged to Oliver North had said “yes.”
The Sun did not publish its story about what really happened for almost a year. My father’s explanation had something to do with national security, coupled with Defense Department denials and a belief that what had happened couldn’t have happened without the express blessing of President Ronald Reagan. It was only after The New York Times broke the story that said the Libyan madman was the intended target after all, that the Sun published its story.
It was a blockbuster written by Sun Associate Editor Jim Barrows who had learned of the facts practically from the man who pulled the trigger. It was the truth and it was beyond any plausible denials. And it pitted Oliver North against the full and responsible deniability of the Pentagon. But, just like Iran-contra, something smelled.
What that story makes us consider is where is the appropriate line beyond which an American president should not cross? When the president takes an oath to defend the United States against all enemies and that oath bumps up against his oath to defend the Constitution, what gives first? Does he protect American life at the expense of the Constitution or does he tarry to the point any defense would be in vain?
There should be little question that Oliver North had someone’s — the president’s — approval to violate U.S. policy to get Gadhafi, which was a national security imperative. Is there a doubt in anyone’s mind that by doing so this country would have sought Reagan’s impeachment? Of course not.
So why do we so quickly forget that lesson and allow ourselves to pay heed to those few who call for Obama’s impeachment when the same national security interests are at stake? And when we don’t have a loose cannon like North to defend in the process?
The simple truth is that there are no simple truths and no simple answers. We need our president to make decisions to save lives every day of the year. Sometimes that means he must make decisions to take lives.
Forget about the president. We need to forgive ourselves the necessity for such decisions. And we need to grow up by understanding that such decisions have to be made.
Sometimes a public airing of our military plans is an important step toward avoiding war. And when that makes sense we should do it. But sometimes a public airing aids no one but our enemies. That is when common sense should prevail. In either case, an honest mistake is no cause for impeachment, so we should just stop going there.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.