Book Review: El Dorado Canyon: Reagan's Undeclared War With Qaddafi


by Joseph T. Stanik

Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 319. Illus., notes, bibliography, index. $34.95. ISBN:1-55750-983-2

This book is an extensive study of the "quasi-war" that the United States fought with the major miscreant in the Middle East during the 1980s, namely Libya's Moammar Qaddafi. The conflict began with aerial combat between two Libyan aircraft and two American naval aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra in August 1981, as the US Navy was conducting a Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise to challenge Libyan claims to control what was legally international waters This was followed by a series of Libyan sponsored terrorist incidents, most notably the airport massacres in Rome and Vienna in late 1985 and further reassertions of claims to the Gulf of Sidra , this time with threats to attack any naval forces that crossed a so-called "Line of Death," a challenge the Reagan administration quickly took up. This resulted in another FON exercise (“Prairie Fire”) in March 1986 by the Navy, during which a couple of Libyan naval vessels were destroyed. A spate of terrorist attacks followed, culminating in the bombing of the La Belle Discothèque in Berlin on 5 April 1986, with over 200 casualties, among them 78 Americans. The conflict with Libya culminated a week later with a raid by US Navy carrier aircraft and Air Force bombers operating from Britain against selected targets, including Qaddafi's own residence, killing his adopted four year old daughter. The conflict then subsided, ending with a bizarre air battle off Tobruk on Jan. 4, 1989, in which two F-14's shot down two more Libyan aircraft. With the horrific exception of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Qaddafi then largely abandoned terrorism, as well as his more grandiose ideas in foreign policy.

Stanik carefully recounts these events in a very well-researched and well-written book. The difficulties of mounting the operations, not to mention the problems in formulating an effective policy against state sponsored terrorism, are covered in considerable detail. The great value of Stanik's book is that it shows both how much things have changed and how much things have remained the same. Militarily these operations, especially “Prairie Fire,” marked an important milestone in the recovery of the US military from Vietnam. Aided by firm political backing and a robust ROE, the Navy was able to establish clear superiority over its Libyan opponents. The conduct of “El Dorado Canyon” also showed how far we have come in our strike capability. The raid on Qaddafi involved aircraft using, at least in the Air Force's case, laser guided bombs, the most accurate weapons of the day. Even then, most of the bombs fell wide of their respective targets. Given the precision of today's weapons, Stanik's book shows how much of a quantum leap the American armed forces have made in this area in a mere two decades. Politically, Stanik shows how little things have changed even with 9/11. The Reagan administration's efforts to formulate a policy on terrorism was marked by divisions between George Schultz' State Department, which sought a much tougher line against Libya, and Casper Weinberger's Defense Department, still concerned with getting into another Vietnam-like situation. One Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas McInerny, believed that no Libyan target was "worth the life of even one airman." Still, the Navy and Air Force carried out the mission superbly, buoyed by the confidence of the administration in their respective abilities and the President's willingness to let military commanders make the tough calls as they needed to.

In terms of international relations, Stanik paints a picture that has become depressingly familiar. Despite hundreds of casualties inflicted by Libyan-supported Palestinian terrorists (the most notable of whom was the now late and unlamented Abu Nidal), Europeans quailed at the Reagan administration's stern response to Qaddafi. Most irritating, as usual, was France's President Francois Mitterand. After denying over-flight rights to<

Reviewer: Prof. Richard L. DiNardo, USMC C&SC, Quantico    

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