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El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi

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El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi by Joseph T. Stanik. Naval Institute Press (, 291 Wood Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21402, 2002, 308 pages, (hardcover) $34.95, ISBN 1-55750-983-2; $18.99 (softcover), ISBN 978-1-62157-404-0.

Since 11 September 2001, the United States and its allies have undertaken antiterrorism campaigns around the world. However, one of the most significant battles against state-sponsored terrorism occurred 25 years before 9/11. This battle was the confrontation between the United States and Libya in the 1970s and 1980s.

Joseph Stanik, a retired US Navy officer and Middle East scholar describes this conflict in his book, El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi. His meticulously well-researched book includes more than 700 citations from various sources. The subject is Libya’s relations with the United States leading to Operation El Dorado Canyon and the events following the raid. Also included is a history of Libya and summaries of Libya’s relations with its neighboring countries and Arab allies. Finally, Stanik expertly analyzes the planning and execution of the US bombing raid.

In his preface, Stanik emphasizes five key components of the US-Libya conflict. The first three points are that: (1) developing a comprehensive strategy for Libya was a long and difficult process for the United States; (2) the US Navy and Air Force “planned and trained with exceptional skill and precision;” and (3) the US Sixth Fleet played a crucial role in the prolonged confrontation with Libya (p. xiii). Stanik’s final two assertions are that President Ronald Reagan acted with restraint in dealing with the Libyans and that the operation resulted in a “. . . devastating political and psychological defeat for Qaddafi [that] . . . undercut his ability to carry out or support further acts of terrorism” (p. xiii). These two points deserve critical examination.

That President Reagan acted with great restraint in dealing with Libya could just be a history lesson, yet Stanik provides an analysis of how one state can respond to an asymmetric threat from another state. The advice of Reagan’s advisors, including, among others, Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, National Security Advisor John Poindexter, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Casey, and White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, provides insight into the policy decision-making. After other measures failed to deter Qaddafi, this advice led Reagan to authorize the airstrike against the Libyan regime. This is an excellent study as the United States attempted various military and diplomatic measures to deter Qaddafi before using offensive military force.

Stanik’s other contention is that the US raid “undercut” how Qaddafi supported terrorism, specifically, that Qaddafi reduced his support and resorted to covert methods (p.xiii). Terrorist attacks attributed to Libya decreased in the years after the air strike, supporting this point. However, as Stanik admits, Libya was implicated in the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988, killing 243 people. This act of terrorism, only two years after the raid, casts doubt on the idea that Qaddafi truly reduced his support. The author highlights the changes in Qaddafi’s rhetoric and attitude toward terrorism in the 1990s and post-9/11 era. However, 15 years after the bombing raid, this cannot necessarily be connected directly to the operation.

El Dorado Canyon is an excellent analysis of two decades of US-Libyan relations and how the United States dealt with a state sponsor of terrorism. Joint air operations planners will benefit from reading this book due to the complex nature of the operation and detailed planning. Also, students of national policy processes can gain insight into how national-level policy is shaped. Finally, after 9/11 Qaddafi pledged his support for the United States, and his intelligence apparatus assisted the war on terror. This cooperation would not result in more favorable ties with the West. In 2011, the United States, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and other allies conducted operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector in the wake of the Arab Spring, ultimately resulting in the downfall and death of Qaddafi. A study of these operations would make an excellent follow-on to El Dorado Canyon. 

Maj Brian R. Huston, USAF
Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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