The Reagan Administration’s determination to counter international terrorism has been more popular at home, and more successful abroad, than any other single policy. It was a bitter irony that this policy was also the proximate cause of the severe political crisis which confronted the Administration as 1986 ended. In considering how this drastic turn came about, it is important to recall the mood of America in the latter half of 1985.
There was widespread anger in the United States, and demands by Congress and the public for vigorous action to protect Americans abroad, following two serious incidents: the dramatic detention and killing of American citizens in the highly publicized hijackings of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 and the cruise ship Achille Lauro, in June and October, respectively. The Reagan Administration, already frustrated by two years of inability to stop terrorism, was determined to find better ways to do so. When 20 innocent American travelers were killed or wounded on December 27, 1985, in bloody attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports, with the carnage covered extensively on television, it was inevitable that combating terrorism would be the most important, urgent issue on the Administration’s agenda as 1986 began.
During the year the Administration acted in three particularly important areas relating to terrorism. First, a series of broad policies and programs was adopted to strengthen long-term counterterrorist action. Second, the struggle to combat Libyan- and Syrian-sponsored terrorism continued and was escalated. On the whole these two efforts were successful. The Administration made progress in bringing about a sharp diminution in international terrorism and a firmer, more cooperative approach to the problem by Western governments. Moreover, American and European retaliatory actions led to an apparent decision by Libya and Syria to use their influence, at least temporarily, for restraint rather than promotion of terrorism.
The third area of activity in 1986 was the effort to moderate the policies of Iran, and in the process to obtain the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The revelation of covert arms