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After 4 decades, 8 U.S. presidents, Gadhafi maintains grip on power

Don't count out Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

For more than four decades, the wily Libyan strongman has locked horns with Western leaders, including eight U.S. presidents, and so far he has managed to emerge mostly unscathed. He's held onto power so long for a reason, and that survivor's instinct may motivate him to seek ways wiggle out from under new U.N.-sanctioned airstrikes.

How do the United States and its allies deal with Gadhafi now -- after demanding he step down, signing onto a U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone and expressing solidarity with the rebels? Very warily, American officials suggest.

"If Gadhafi does not comply with the resolution, the international community will impose consequences, and the resolution will be enforced through military action," Obama declared Friday in brief remarks at the White House.

Gadhafi has vexed a string of previous presidents, beginning with Richard M. Nixon, which doesn't offer much guidance to Obama as he attempts to navigate a careful path between exercising too much U.S. military power in yet another Muslim country and doing too little to help rebels seeking Gadhafi's ouster.

The troubled relationship between Gadhafi and the West began in 1969 on Nixon's watch, when the young Libyan military officer overthrew Libya's frail King Idris.

Concerned that Gadhafi's Libyan Arab Republic was cozying up to the Soviet Union, Nixon tried to isolate him by increasing U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia and Iran, two Cold War allies at the time.

That strategy collapsed when Saudi Arabia and Iran joined other oil-producing countries in the Arab oil boycott of 1973, mainly in retaliation to the U.S. decision to resupply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur War. And the Western-backed government of the shah of Iran fell in the 1979 revolution.

Throughout the 1970s, Gadhafi supplied weapons, training and safe haven to terrorists, including Italy's Red Brigades and the Irish Republican Army. President Jimmy Carter denounced Gadhafi as a "polecat" and tried to keep his distance.

Shortly after his inauguration in 1981, President Ronald Reagan expelled Libyan diplomats from Washington upon reports that Libyan assassination teams were targeting U.S. envoys. Reagan labeled Gadhafi the "mad dog of the Middle East."

In 1986, when Libya was linked to the bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. soldiers, Reagan ordered airstrikes against Gadhafi's compound and other targets in Tripoli and Benghazi. More than 100 people were killed, including Gadhafi's young adopted daughter. But Gadhafi escaped unharmed to continue to taunt Reagan.

In 1988, at the end of Reagan's two terms, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270, many of them Americans.

Libyan agents were blamed for the bombing. Years later, Libya would accept responsibility for the bombing and agree to monetary settlements.

Gadhafi sought to court President George H.W. Bush, praising him for seeming "to be serious" about seeking peace in the Middle East. Bush wasn't impressed. He extended Reagan's sanctions and declaration of a national emergency with respect to Libya.

President Bill Clinton maintained and expanded those sanctions, telling Congress in 1994 that Libya posed "a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat" to U.S. national security.

After being treated as an international pariah for three decades, Gadhafi did an about-face in 2003, after President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.

Fearing his country might be next on Bush's list, Gadhafi agreed to Bush's demands that he give up his nuclear- and chemical-weapons programs. He also renounced terrorism, leading the U.S. to remove it from the list of "state sponsors of terrorism." And in 2008, the U.S. and Libya established full diplomatic relations.

But relations began to sour again after former Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted for the 1988 bombing, was released by Scottish officials in August 2009 on humanitarian grounds.

Gadhafi, of course, greeted him as a celebrity.

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