Many Americans are familiar with Qaddafi, long known for his outlandish outfits, brutal rule, and sponsorship of terrorism against the West. But they're probably less familiar with past tensions between the U.S. and Libya, which date back two centuries.
In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay bribes demanded by pirates from the Barbary states (including what is now Libya) to guarantee American ships safe passage on trade routes through the Mediterranean.
When the pirates started attacking U.S. ships, Jefferson sent the Navy to bombard Tripoli (now Libya's capital), starting a war that lasted four years, defeated the Barbary states, and ended piracy in the region. (That's why the Marines' Hymn* begins, "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.")
Fast-forward to 1969, when Qaddafi took power in a coup. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Libya was denounced by the West for crushing internal opposition and sponsoring terrorism abroad. President Ronald Reagan famously called Qaddafi "this mad dog of the Middle East."
In 1986, after Libyan-sponsored terrorists bombed a Berlin disco, killing two Americans, Reagan ordered U.S. air strikes against Libya. Qaddafi survived, but 101 people, including his daughter, were killed.
Two years later, Qaddafi was behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans, when the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. In response, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Libya.
Libya remained an international outcast until 2003, when it took responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, agreed to compensate the victims' families, and to give up its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, with international monitors allowed into Libya to verify. But Qaddafi's brutal, authoritarian regime remained in place.
Today, the fighting in Libya is part of broad regional unrest that began in January with the ouster of Tunisia's dictator, then spread to Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, and other nations in the Middle East, including Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain
Libya, a desert nation of 6.5 million people, is more important strategically than it appears. It's the world's 15th-largest exporter of oil. And it occupies a critical location on the Mediterranean, close to Western Europe and next to Egypt, which has long been one of the U.S.'s most important allies in the region.
"If Libya becomes really unstable, it could be a real problem for Europe, with refugees and illegal immigrants flooding in," says Paul Sullivan, a professor at Georgetown University. It could also further destabilize neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, which have new, transitional governments.
The other reason events in Libya are being watched so closely is that Qaddafi himself is such a wild card. "Qaddafi made Libya into a pariah state for his own benefit," says Sullivan. "It's another example of a wretched leadership destroying a country."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, April 18, 2011)