In Reagan’s time, the premier state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East was Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Much like Trump has with Iran, Reagan imposed crippling sanctions on Gaddafi’s terrorist regime. And after Libyan-backed terrorists killed five Americans in Rome and Vienna, Reagan drew a red line, warning Gaddafi that the United States would hold him fully accountable for any further attacks on U.S. citizens.
Like Iran today, Gaddafi ignored the president’s red line. In 1986, on Gaddafi’s orders, terrorists exploded a bomb at a West Berlin nightclub that was frequented by U.S. servicemen, killing Sgt. Kenneth Ford and injuring some 50 U.S. military personnel. In response, Reagan sent U.S. jets and bombers to attack Libya’s terrorist infrastructure — including a strike on Gaddafi’s compound. The Libyan leader just barely escaped but claimed that his 15-month-old adopted daughter, Hana, had been killed (a claim that now appears to have been a hoax).
In an address to the nation announcing the military action, Reagan declared that Gaddafi had “counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong.” The United States, Reagan said, would not “ignore, by inaction, the slaughter of American civilians and American soldiers,” adding, “when our citizens are abused or attacked anywhere in the world, on the direct orders of a hostile regime, we will respond, so long as I’m in this Oval Office.” And he warned Gaddafi: “Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.”
Trump’s Soleimani strike was a Reagan-esque move. Like Reagan, Trump drew a red line, warning Iran that if it killed an American, it would be held accountable. Like Reagan, Trump enforced that red line. Like Reagan, Trump launched a decapitation strike against the terrorist leader responsible for the death of an American. And like Reagan, Trump warned Iran that if necessary, his administration would not hesitate to act again.
There are also differences between then and now. Unlike Reagan, Trump did not address the nation, as Reagan had, explaining to the American people his reasons for ordering military action. Delivering the news via Twitter is a poor substitute for an event of this immense gravity. But unlike Reagan, Trump succeeded in taking out his target — killing Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia.
The biggest difference between then and now is the reaction on Capitol Hill. Back then, Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill openly supported Reagan’s decision, declaring, “All this started because of the evil heart of a bad man. Every time he escalates, we have to strike.” By contrast, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blasted Trump, as have most congressional Democrats and presidential candidates. This is Trump Derangement Syndrome at its apex. It is pathetic that so many Democrats can’t say “good riddance” to a terrorist with the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands simply because Trump was the one who ordered his killing.
In announcing his strikes on Libya, Reagan said, “I have no illusion that tonight’s action will bring down the curtain on Gaddafi’s reign of terror.” Indeed, it did not. Two years later, Libyan terrorists brought down Pan Am Flight 103. We should be under no illusion that Soleimani’s killing will end Iran’s reign of terror.
But the strike was necessary, because our deterrence posture with Iran was failing. Iran had been carrying out increasingly bold attacks — attacking Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers, then an unmanned U.S. drone and then Saudi oil facilities. Our lack of serious response emboldened Iran to escalate further. As retired Gen. David Petraeus recently explained, Trump’s strike helped “reestablish deterrence.”
Now, Trump must maintain that deterrence. Reagan did the right thing, but he didn’t maintain the pressure in ways that further deterred Libya, which made Gaddafi think he could get away with the Pan Am bombing. The lesson is that one act, however bold, is not enough to deter a terrorist state. Iran will continue testing our resolve. It must not find reason to question it again. Trump’s talk of withdrawal from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq sends Iran precisely the wrong signal.
Trump was right to take out Soleimani. The Gipper would be proud. But if Trump does not continue to deter Iran, the regime will escalate again — a lesson Reagan learned the hard way.