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Jody Powell Says Reagan Was 'Justified' in Libya Raid

April 23, 1986|BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writer

Jody Powell, former press secretary to President Jimmy Carter, said Tuesday in Orange County that President Reagan was justified in bombing Libya, but that the wisdom of the military action remains to be seen.

Powell, who is now a syndicated newspaper columnist, said in an interview at Chapman College: "I don't have any questions in my mind that we were justified in hitting Libya, particularly since . . . the degree that they have targeted Americans and American interests is too obvious to be ignored.

"Whether it was the wise thing to do, as well as justifiable, I'm not sure at this point. I think that question remains to be answered. A lot depends on how (the United States) handles the next few months. The one thing we must avoid at all costs is getting ourselves in a position so that our predominant, maybe only role in the Middle East, is one of military retaliation for terrorist attacks."

Importance of Diplomacy

Powell added: "If we allow ourselves to be pushed into that corner, then we'll sacrifice every interest in the region that we have . . . . Ironically, one of the things that military action (against Libya) does is make the diplomatic side even more important . . . to get at the guts of this thing, which is the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem."

The former press secretary was interviewed before he delivered the kickoff speech for Chapman College's three-day "Media and Politics" forum. He will speak again at 10:30 a.m. today during a panel discussion on "Television and the U.S. Presidency."

During Powell's tenure as presidential spokesman, the predominant foreign issue was also the Middle East. Carter gained international praise for engineering a landmark peace treaty between Egypt and Israel during 1978 talks at Camp David.

But the Carter Administration drew strong criticism after Iranians seized the American Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. That seizure, with 52 Americans held captive, lasted until Jan. 20, 1981--Carter's final day in office.

Political Paradox

Powell said it was paradoxical that Carter's diplomatic work to free the hostages resulted in no civilian loss of life, but nonetheless was politically catastrophic.

Criticism of Carter's inaction against Iran was a key factor in Ronald Reagan's 1980 triumph, Powell said, adding: "Life, as somebody said, is not always fair."

He continued: "Iran right now is more involved in international terrorism than it was in 1979 or 1980. But nobody in the White House now is talking about bombing Iran, for the same reason that Jimmy Carter wasn't interested in bombing Iran. And that is because Iran sits in a very strategic position, right next door to the Soviet Union, right on the (Persian) Gulf, and the last thing we want to do is drop a few bombs on Tehran and end up with Soviet troops and bases in that country."

Powell said that "by the late summer of 1980, the level of frustration and anger of the American public was so great that if President Carter had been willing to bomb a harbor or an airfield, that sort of thing, it would have enjoyed widespread public support, even if it had cost the lives of most of the hostages."

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