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When The U.S. Had “Friends”

During a conference sponsored by the Italian foreign ministry, it emerged that in 1986, Italy warned Libya of an impending U.S. strike. Then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan had ordered the strike in retaliation for a deadly terror attack against a disco in Germany, where three people, including two U.S. servicemen, had been murdered. The attack had Libyan fingerprints all over it. But the Italians, who were informed because the U.S. planned to use Italian airspace to attack, did not like the idea. According to the revelations made by the Libyan foreign minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalgam, who was then Tripoli’s ambassador to Rome, Italy’s government–apparently the Prime minister himself–informed him of the impending strike. The attack, as we know, went on anyway. But thanks to the Italian tip, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi managed to survive it. Libyan gratitude was expressed two days later, when the Libyans shot two long range missiles at the Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily.

Then-Italian president Francesco Cossiga claims that Bettino Craxi, who at the time was the Italian prime minister, wished to retaliate by having special troops land in Benghazi. Cossiga told Craxi that the missiles were really aimed at the Americans, since they had a base in Lampedusa, and only at the instigation of the Soviets, who were annoyed at the U.S. presence in the island. That is why the missiles fell short of the target–not because they were inaccurate or the Libyans were incompetent. It was a warning–to the Americans, not to the Italians.

So, to recap: Lybia kills innocents in an act of terrorism. The U.S. plans to retaliate and asks for help from a NATO ally. NATO ally spies on the U.S. and tells Libya to save its dictator’s skin. Libya gets pounded anyway, but the dictator survives. Libya thanks the treacherous NATO ally by lobbing a couple of missiles at it. Treacherous NATO ally gets upset for having been stabbed in the back by dictator whose record is not exactly the most reliable.Treacherous NATO ally prime minister has a fantasy of landing on the shores of Benghazi (though it is not clear what the Italians would have done once there–revive their lost colonial empire, maybe?). President convinces wily Prime minister to be consistent with the previous cowardly decision and do nothing. Libyans’ act of aggression is sold to historians as a thank you note and a sign that all is well in bilateral relations. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Now, Cossiga is famous for revealing unlikely state secrets from the time he was in office–and not all such secrets are verifiable. But if half of this story is right, Italy should thank the stars that the U.S. is currently too busy with its elections to pay much attention. And that such an incident, almost twenty years ago, is now largely forgotten. It is an embarrassment that should remind everyone that, even as the transatlantic alliance was more united during the time of the Cold War, Europeans had a way of dealing with the Southern flank of the Mediterranean and the Middle East which was not always friendly to their U.S. ally. The fact that, after 9/11, this trend has caused more tensions among transatlantic allies is perhaps more a sign of the rising relevance of the Middle East in global politics and less an indication of deteriorating relations among allies. After all, if you judge Europe’s sometimes-condoning approach to the follies of Middle East dictators against the background of this little episode, you can see a remarkable degree of continuity.


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