Ronald Reagan picture

Interview With European Journalists on Libya

January 10, 1986

Q. Mr. President, Colonel Qadhafi warned that as a consequence of American hostility towards Libya, his country could come even closer to the Soviet Union than it already is and that he may transform it into another Cuba. First of all, do you think he could achieve this goal? Secondly, would you prepare to tolerate it, and would this develop into something to be stopped?

The President. Well, I don't think there's any question but that the relationship between the Soviet Union and Qadhafi's Libya has been very close. Soviet arms and weapons have been coming in there and stockpiled in there for a number of years. We're well aware of all of that. So, I don't see that there could be very much more than is already going on, and I don't think that the fear of something else or the concern about that should in any way make us unwilling to isolate Libya, as long as Qadhafi insists on backing terrorism the way he is. We can't allow that to go unanswered in the world.

Q. Is it already Cuba?

The President. I don't know. I wouldn't hazard a guess on that. It doesn't seem to me that it is in exactly the same kind of satellite position that Cuba is in.

Q. Mr. President, the Italian Government has decided to stop sales of arms to Libya and will not allow Italian workers to replace American workers. But it is also said that further sanctions should be decided jointly by Europe and not independently by—[inaudible]. Are you satisfied with this measure? Do you feel that Europeans would be able to do something together?

The President. I appreciate very much the fact that Prime Minister Craxi has made that statement about not replacing Americans; other states are following suit and saying the same thing. But with regard to it being a joint decision, yes, we would be very much supportive of that. Those who have made statements that sanctions don't appear to work—well, one of the reasons is because for an individual nation to put forth such sanctions, when their trade or the things that they're trading is available from any number of other suppliers, indicates that maybe sanctions haven't worked because we haven't jointly gone together. And we'd be most pleased if we could sit down with the European community and together say to Qadhafi, "We are going to isolate you in this way unless you will change your ways and give up this backing and promoting of terrorism."

Q. But do you feel that the measures that the Italian Government took are enough, or did you expect more?

The President. Well, except that his suggesting that on sanctions that there should be a joint discussion of whether this should take place—but, yes, I appreciate very much, as I say, what he has said so far.

Q. Mr. President, you said in your news conference that you had irrefutable evidence about Qadhafi's involvement in the Vienna and Rome attacks. Now Mr. Andreotti said that he would want to see more proof. Next week you are sending Mr. Whitehead [Deputy Secretary of State] to Europe. Will he disclose to the European governments some of the evidence that you have?

The President. Yes, as a matter of fact, the State Department has released quite a document now. Perhaps some of you have seen it; I know it's available to everyone. Now, that document is based on unclassified information. To go further with classified information would run the risk of revealing some of our sources and so forth—the type of thing you don't want to do. But I'm sure that Mr. Whitehead will be discussing with them this and whatever else can be released at that level to them about the information that we have. And there isn't any question—a matter of fact, the unclassified document that you have makes it pretty evident that he is widely connected. We know for a fact that he's met a few times in just recent months with Nidal.

Q. Mr. President, one question. Are you disappointed by the Europeans' attitude so far, and what kind of minimum cooperation do you expect from them?

The President. Well, I was not totally surprised. I recognize the problems they have in many of them with trade on a far larger scale than we have, but I have to say that I think there is a moral issue involved here with regard to a sovereign state that is so obviously resorting to terrorism literally against the world. And I am hopeful that, as they continue to consider this and learn more facts—and that's why Mr. Whitehead's mission—that we may find that we can come together on isolating this outlaw among the world's nations.

Q. Mr. President, could I ask what your reaction would be to the suggestion by Senator Howard Metzenbaum that perhaps the time had come to consider assassination.

The President. No, I was quite surprised at that. You don't join them at their level; terrorism in response to terrorism is not the answer. It is terrorism that is the evil. When I mentioned a moment ago about—there is a moral issue involved here. This is what I'm hoping that our friends and allies will consider. Can we place trade, everyday relationships, ahead in value of the immorality that is inherent in people who will come in, as they did, into an airport and just simply shoot human beings that were there—men, women, children—with no regard to what participation those people have in anything that's going on?

Q. So, you may have anticipated that reaction and also the reaction of the Arab States. In that case, why did you feel that you needed to go on with sanctions?

The President. Well, for one thing, we were a little defenseless with regard to taking actions in response to this terrorism while so many of our citizens were there and potential hostages. So, we felt that we should untie our hands with regard to whatever action might be necessary in the future. And, as I say, I'm hopeful that our allies might see that sanctions can be successful if enough of us do it.

Q. Sir, could I ask if the Europeans still show reluctance after Mr. Whitehead's visit and after your evidence that you've shown them and they take a position that you feel is not fully supportive, are you afraid that this might develop into a kind of split with the European allies such as developed over the Soviet gas pipeline?

The President. I think our relationship is too strong for this. It certainly would not make us turn on them, and I'm quite sure that they desire to keep the relationship the way it is. I don't believe that there has ever been a time when the outright friendship between governments, or allies, has been as strong as it is now.

Q. Mr. President, the Austrian Government has, as recently as yesterday, made a point again that she has no information of Libyan involvement in the airport attacks. Since Austria, as a matter of principle, does not impose sanctions on any country except if it is in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolution, what would you expect the Austrian Government to do?

The President. Well, they've taken some positions, as you say, on a matter of principle, not just aimed at this particular incident. On the other hand, perhaps if we make available to them the information that does indicate the guilt of Libya, they might reconsider and realize that this was an assault, literally an act of war, against Austria.

Q. You have not yet made available all the information, I understand from your answer now, Mr. President.

The President. Well, as I say, Mr. Whitehead is going; and to some of our immediate allies, such as in the economic group, I have asked our people to send on my behalf, personally, to the heads of state this document that I was describing a little while ago.

Q. Mr. President, Qadhafi has threatened to hit American bases in Europe and the people around them. And Italy is particularly exposed in this case. Do you take the threat seriously? Have you done anything about it?

The President. Oh, I think we have to take the threat seriously. As I said in the press conference the other day, through our intelligence and our cooperation with other countries in their intelligence gathering, we have been able to abort 126 terrorist missions in the last year alone. So, yes, we take those threats seriously.

Q. But do you know anything about this particular threat?

The President. Only that they have been quite open and public in declaring that we are a target. A matter of fact, he hasn't weighed his words carefully at all with regard to his feelings about us.

Q. Sir, in Geneva you spoke with Mr. Gorbachev about terrorism after the Soviet Union, itself, and its diplomats became a victim of terrorism in Lebanon. Did you feel after the summit that there was a certain common understanding between the superpowers concerning terrorism? And what do you make out of the recent Soviet reactions as, for example, today Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, who said that the American actions threaten Libyan sovereignty?

The President. Well, I've recognized that there are certain elements of propaganda that go on in this relationship. But at the same time, in my talks with Mr. Gorbachev, he expressed his repugnance, the feeling that he had of repugnance for terrorist acts.

Q. Mr. President, don't you think that the sanctions will have an impact, whether they're positive or negative, on the peace process now going on?

The President. I don't really. I don't think that there would be a setback with regard to that peace formula. We're having some problems with it, with moving forward on the peace process. I have to tip my hat to King Hussein, who has been most courageous in trying to carry this forward. And I believe that we have established some basis of trust with many of the Arab States, and I don't think that that will be actually affected by this.

Q. But the reaction of the Arab States were not exactly positive at this time.

The President. Well, I think there was maybe some feeling that publicly they had to stand together in the world today as it is. But I haven't seen any real evidence of a falling away of relationships with us.

Q. Mr. President, may I just ask you one more Austria-related question. What is your evaluation of the fact that Austria—which has very close connections with the Arab countries, which has tried to at least have some moderating effect on Yasser Arafat, has welcomed Qadhafi in Vienna a couple of years ago—that Austria was chosen by the terrorists as one of their sites for their attacks? What does this prove, or does it prove anything?

The President. The only thing I know is that I have had a report that Austria is holding in jail at least three members of the Abu Nidal group. And this, in itself, could be a reason for them taking an action in an effort to blackmail Austria into releasing its members.

Q. Sir, Qadhafi said at his press conference yesterday that you had concentrated on the activities of Palestinian terrorism—I think he used that word—and ignored the root causes for it. What would your reaction be to that?

The President. Well, again, Mr. Qadhafi's speaking quite loosely and without any regard to the truth and the facts. We have said from the very beginning in the peace process that the problem of the Palestinian refugees had to be a part of the peace process and there had to be a resolution of that problem, and we still feel that way.

Q. Mr. President, economic sanctions against Libya would evidently hurt the German economy. The sanctions you have ordered do not necessarily hurt the American economy. If Chancellor Kohl, for example, would sit here with us, how would you try to explain to him that it might be worthwhile in the long term to pay a price?

The President. Well, as I say, I understood the problems of some of our allies and friends. Their trade is on a greater basis than ours. And a matter of fact, we're probably the lowest on the ladder of trade with Libya, and this due in part to the fact that we already had partial sanctions that were put in effect a few years ago. So, I'm aware of that, and I know that problem.

Again, though, I have to point out: Is it a permanent trade that they can go on then—and we've seen the newsreels on television-the armed guards, the military forces, policemen carrying submachine guns and so forth at the airports and the various public buildings of countries such as West Germany and the others, the United Kingdom, all these other allies—can they see this as a fair trade? That in return for maintaining economic relations, that their countries must continue in this armed state with this sense of insecurity? What is going to happen to international travel? I have had any number of people that, just coming in casual contact with, have gone out of their way to tell me that they'd canceled any plans for travel, whether it is business or pleasure. Now, is this a fair exchange for retaining the trade? And remember, I don't think you should think of the sanctions as something that is forever. You think of it as something that says straighten up and fly right to Mr. Qadhafi, and then things will change.

Q. Mr. President, you said before that having taken the Americans away, you feel more secure about acting towards Libya. There are 16,000, 15,000 Italians over there. Are you assuming that your next step should be the use of force?

The President. No, as a matter of fact, you have me here; I can't discuss things of that kind. I think Mr. Qadhafi would be pleased to hear my answer, but, no, I can't answer that. I just say that I think that we should be ready for any contingency.

Q. So, when would you be satisfied that Qadhafi had ended his links with terrorism to the point where you could form a new, useful relationship and remove the sanctions?

The President. Oh, I think it would have to be more than words; I think by deeds alone. For example, in reading this material there, you will find he does engage in training and in financing—through accounts in many of the banks, including banks in Europe as well as the United States—terrorist movements. He would have to reveal by action that he has severed those connections and is no longer backing these terrorist groups.

Q. So, you would have to be satisfied there was no financial link, no training camps left in Libya-

The President. Right.

Q. no support.

The President. Yes.

Q. Mr. President, did you not have about I year ago, when you were in Los Angeles for the Olympic games, an approach by the Italian Foreign Minister about starting discussion with Qadhafi? Did you not have any attempt either from Middle Eastern

The President. I'm trying to recall—

Q. —diplomats or European diplomats so that you can open a dialog?

The President. I'm trying to recall, but I do know that there have been proposals of that kind. And before anything could be done, why, he would do something else that made it rather impossible.

Q. Do you think the Austrian Government could be helpful in trying to exert any moderating influence on Qadhafi?

The President. Well, I don't know whether any one country could. But as I say, I would think that if basically the Western World said, "The line is drawn; we're no longer going to tolerate this activity"

Q. So, again, you do not expect any problems with the allies in the next few weeks regarding the mission and so on?

The President. Well, no. We'll try to explain our position to them and, very frankly, try to persuade them that they do have a very real stake in this. I've been in most of those airports in all of those other countries that we're talking about sometime or other. No, I've not been in Austria. I have missed Austria.

Q. Yes. Will you come to Austria soon, Mr. President?

The President. Well, I would like to.

Q. Any plans?

The President. What?

Q. Any plans so far?

The President. Well, not with the things that are lined up between summits and the economic conference that will be held in Japan and so forth. I'm not exactly a free agent when it comes to going where I want to go. [Laughter] There are people that tell me where I'm going. But, no, but I'd like that. But I say, in seeing that and now seeing the extent of those security measures that I described, I just—as I say, I feel that action—we must make it plain that we're not going to put up with that.

Q. Could you raise the question again with Mr. Gorbachev when you meet him? I

mean, this question of terrorism. I mean-

The President. Oh, I'm quite sure we'll be discussing that.

Q. Are you now?

The President. As a matter of fact, it doesn't have to wait until a meeting. He and I have stayed in communication with each other, exchanging messages.

Q. Did you send him a message? Relay this to

The President. What?

Q. Did you send him a message related to the Vienna and Rome attacks?

The President. Not in these last few weeks related to this. But not too long ago we had an exchange on other issues.

Q. Thank you, sir.

Note: The interview began at 1:05 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. Participants included Henri Tierre of Le Monde, France; Leo Wierland of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Federal Republic of Germany; Michael Binyon of the Times of London, United Kingdom; Ennio Carretto of La Stampa, Italy; and Georg Possaner of Die Presse, Austria. The transcript of the interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on January 11.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With European Journalists on Libya Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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