When we think of the French, America, and Gaddafi's Libya, we tend to think of April 1986, when America fighter planes swarmed Tripoli, lighting up the Libyan night, barely missing Moammar Gaddafi, who had been sleeping in a tent outside his compound. The French, led by President Francois Mitterand, had not exactly supported us. Today, ironically, the French are demonstrating clearer resolve and purpose over the Libyan skies than our own commander-in-chief.
In 1986, our president was Ronald Reagan; today, it isn't.
There's an especially fascinating tidbit concerning the French, Gaddafi, and America, which, to my knowledge, went unreported (and remains largely unknown) until disclosed in my 2007 biography of Bill Clark, titled, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand.
A quick word on Clark: Bill Clark is a great man -- some would argue a national hero. He was Ronald Reagan's closest adviser. Next to Reagan himself, no American did more to defeat the USSR in the 1980s. And then, after all that, the unassuming Clark rode off into the sunset, retreating to his ranch in central California. He refused to cash in on a million-dollar book deal. Reagan insiders and biographers, from Cap Weinberger to Lou Cannon, pleaded with Clark to write memoirs, knowing he had much to tell -- things the world didn't know. A model of humility, Clark wouldn't do it.
Finally, two decades after leaving the Reagan administration, Clark grudgingly relented to agree to a biographer: me. Among the things Clark revealed to me was a French request to the Reagan administration to assassinate Gaddafi. Here's what I learned:
Shortly after Reagan's inauguration, French intelligence came to the new president with a highly sensitive plan. Alexandre de Marenches, director of France's external intelligence agency, arrived in Washington with a plan to assassinate the Libyan dictator during a parade, by use of an explosive device placed near the reviewing stand. As Clark and I revisited this meeting over 20 years later, we were unable to locate notes. After consulting several former U.S. intelligence officials, plus other materials, we estimated that the meeting probably occurred in early February 1981, not even a full month into the Reagan presidency. And what was Reagan's response?
"Our answer," said Clark, "was that we understood their [the French] feelings toward the man, but we don't do assassinations."
There was an executive order banning assassinations, first signed by President Gerald Ford and supported by President Jimmy Carter. The Reagan administration had no intention of violating the order, especially as one of its first foreign-policy acts. Reagan was already holding meetings with his foreign policy team, including our own intelligence chief, Bill Casey, on how to kill the Soviet Union -- not Gaddafi.
It's important to place de Marenches' request in presidential context. Jimmy Carter had allowed Gaddafi to push the American Sixth Fleet out of the Gulf of Sidra, among other stunning shows of weakness. Carter was out, and Reagan was in. Reagan had met de Marenches before, specifically in Los Angeles on December 16, 1980 during the transition for the president-elect. The Frenchman was impressed, remarking on Reagan's "modesty" and lack of "self-importance," and shared Reagan's view on the evils of communism; on that December day, he warned Reagan of "the empire of evil." (De Marenches later titled his memoirs, The Evil Empire.)
Intelligence sources that I interviewed for The Judge confirmed Clark's recollection of de Marenches' request. "He came over to the U.S. probably in early February 1981," said one source. "His interlocutor was Vice President Bush. The purpose of the visit was to discuss the removal of Gaddafi. He came to try to get us involved operationally in the plan.... He wanted not just our moral or political support but to get us involved in the actual operation."
This same source underscored the so-called "Safari Club," the group of countries -- France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and the Shah's Iran -- which banded together to fight the spread of Soviet communism, particularly in Africa, as well as halting Gaddafi's adventures in neighboring Chad. The group was formed by intelligence heads in the mid-1970s, with de Marenches its catalyst. They were appalled by the United States' unwillingness to no longer stand up to the Soviets, in a post-Vietnam era marked by a liberal Democratic Congress and president.
The Club sought to fill a vacuum left by weak American liberals.
In short, de Marenches' offer to Reagan was consistent with the concerns and purposes of the Safari Club.
As indication of the highly confidential nature of his overture, de Marenches, tellingly, didn't discuss his offer to Reagan in his 1986 and 1992 books. Quite the contrary, he noted that Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat on March 1, 1978 had asked de Marenches for help in "disposing of him [Gaddafi] physically." De Marenches merely recorded his confusion regarding precisely what Sadat had in mind. "The fact is," wrote de Marenches, "I was not in charge of a team of hired assassins."
Classic French behavior.
Ironically, Bill Clark was soon surprised to learn that he was an assassination target himself, by no less than Moammar Gaddafi. An NSC staffer named Oliver North informed Clark that he was being targeted.
Obviously, the Gaddafi assassination never happened. How different things might have been, even now, 30 years later, had it taken place.
I'm not disappointed in Reagan for not joining the French. He couldn't. With the ban on assassinations, championed by weak Republican and Democratic "détente" presidents, Reagan's hands were tied, especially so early in the administration and with the ultimate goal focused on taking down an Evil Empire.
In fact, Reagan certainly did what he could with Gaddafi. He wasted little time, mere months later, smacking down Gaddafi in the Gulf of Sidra (click here), and then, five years later, hitting the Libyan dictator even more personally in bombing Tripoli in April 1986.
Nonetheless, this is a fascinating what-might-have-been, one that has slipped through the cracks of history. Clearly, it couldn't be more relevant right now, as Moammar Gaddafi continues to be a menace to the world.