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When Reagan Called Libya's Muammar el Qaddafi the "Mad Dog of the Middle East"

Origins of Fighting Words: April 9, 1986


In mid-April, 1986, the Reagan administration was confronted with multiple terrorist acts it blamed on Libya's Muammar el Qaddafi. Even though the administration was buffeted by problems ranging from Cold War issues with Moscow and Nicaragua, the ballooning budget deficit, taxes and oil prices, Reagan's attention was diverted by attacks on an American airliner over Greece and the bombing at a West Berlin discotheque frequented by American soldiers.

During a news conference on April 9, Ronald Reagan called Qaddafi "this mad dog of the Middle East." The insult was of particular severity to Arabs ears, to whom comparisons with dogs, let alone mad dogs, are fighting words.

Here's the full context of the questions and answers on Libya from a transcript of the April 9, 1986 news conference:

Q. Mr. President, do you have any solid evidence that Qadhafi is responsible for the recent acts of terrorism? And if you are contemplating major retaliation, won't you be killing a lot of innocent people? I'd like to follow up.

The President. Helen, we have considerable evidence, over quite a long period of time, that Qadhafi has been quite outspoken about his participation in urging on and supporting terrorist acts—a kind of warfare, as he has called it. Right now, however, I can't answer you specifically on this other, because we're continuing with our intelligence work and gathering evidence on these most recent attacks, and we're not ready yet to speak on that. And any action that we might take would be dependent on what we learn. And so, I can't go further.

Q. Mr. President, I know you must have given it a lot of thought, but what do you think is the real reason that Americans are the prime target of terrorism? Could it be our policies?

The President. Well, we know that this mad dog of the Middle East has a goal of a world revolution, Moslem fundamentalist revolution, which is targeted on many of his own Arab compatriots. And where we figure in that, I don't know. Maybe we're just the enemy because—it's a little like climbing Mount Everest—because we're here. But there's no question but that he has singled us out more and more for attack, and we're aware of that. As I say, we're gathering evidence as fast as we can.

Q. Mr. President, Colonel Qadhafi threatened today to escalate the violence against American civilians and military targets throughout the world if his country is attacked. Does he have the ability to strike here on American soft?

The President. Well, we know that there are a number of his countrymen in this country. He has even suggested that he could call upon people to do that. And we certainly do not overlook that possibility. We're going to be on the alert and on guard for anything he might do. He has threatened repeatedly, and recently, that he will bring that kind of warfare to our shores, directly here. Of course, it's kind of hard to keep up with him, because just a short time after this recent TWA explosion, he went on the air to state that this was an attack on innocent civilians and pure terrorism, and he wouldn't have anything to do with that. That's the same man that referred to the slaughter of the innocents in Rome and Vienna airports as a noble act. So, I don't know whether you count on what he says for your real information. I think you just ignore that and go looking for facts.

Source: The American Presidency Project.

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