1986: Libya Bombing

Joe Biden supported Reagan’s attempt to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi, but he questioned if U.S. policy in Libya would succeed.

TRIPOLI, LIBYA - NOVEMBER: Colonel Muammar Gaddafi at Bab Azizia palace, destroyed in a US air raid and left in ruins,  November 1986.(Photo by Pool KADHAFI/GAILLARDE/BRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Muammar Gaddafi is seen at the Bab al-Azizia compound, which was destroyed in a U.S. air raid and left in ruins, in November 1986. Photo: Pool Kadhafi/Gaillarde/Bres/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

On April 15, 1986, President Ronald Reagan authorized Operation El Dorado Canyon, a series of airstrikes targeting the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi. The strikes were justified by the White House as a response to a series of terrorist attacks throughout the 1980s allegedly directed or financed by Libya, including the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub that killed three people and wounded more than 220. Among the casualties was a member of the U.S. military. The Reagan airstrikes involved 45 U.S. aircraft that dropped some 300 bombs — including dozens of 2,000-pound GBU, or guided bomb unit, munitions — on a variety of sites throughout Libya. Several dozen Libyan soldiers are believed to have been killed along with an unknown number of civilians. Gaddafi and his family narrowly escaped a barrack that was destroyed in the strike. Among the dead was a baby girl whom Gaddafi later claimed was his daughter. During the attack, Libya shot down a U.S. aircraft, killing two American flight personnel.

Joe Biden supported the airstrikes. “There can be no question that Gaddafi has asked for and deserves a strong response like this,” Biden said. But he added a word of caution: “The question is whether this or any such response will be effective.” The answer to Biden’s question seems clear, as most analysts agree that the strikes did not result in any change of Libyan policies. Notably, Biden would go on to oppose U.S. military action against Libya in 2011 when he was vice president under President Barack Obama. He was overruled by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Gaddafi was deposed, sodomized, and murdered following a U.S. and NATO bombing campaign. Biden subsequently praised the Libya operation as a success because no American lives were lost and said it offered a “prescription” for how to handle future conflicts.

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