El Dorado Canyon: Reagan's Undeclared War with Qaddafi

By Stavridis, James | Naval War College Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

El Dorado Canyon: Reagan's Undeclared War with Qaddafi


Stavridis, James, Naval War College Review


Stanik, Joseph T. El Dorado Canyon: Reagan's Undeclared War with Qaddafi. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2002. 360pp. $34.95

This well researched and clearly written study of U.S. combat with Libya in the 1980s has important echoes for today's policy makers. It begins with a quick look at America's first war with a Muslim state-in the nineteenth century, when the U.S. Navy fought viciously with the Barbary pirates off the coast of North Africa. It then traces the rise of one of the Barbary pirates' direct descendants-the well known late-twentieth-century practitioner of state terrorism Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. Throughout the book Joseph Stanik, professor of history and retired naval officer, provides detailed accounts of the 1980 key attacks and a well reasoned analysis of their political impact. There is, of course, particularly well documented material covering the key air strike of 15 April 1986, which was a devastating blow against Qaddafi's regime and changed his approach profoundly.

For those of us on active service in the 1980s, the battles with Libya seemed a bit of a sideshow when compared to the main dance of the Cold War. Yet this relatively short, bitter conflict was actually a harbinger of things to come. Much as today's terrorists seek to influence global events through individual attacks, Qaddafi sought to drive the course of world activity through bombings and state-sponsored terrorism. The Reagan administration at first responded with rhetoric, but it eventually became clear that more forceful action would be needed.

It is interesting, in this time of "global war on terrorism," to look back to the 1980s and realize that this is a war that began long before 9/11. President Reagan was elected in no small measure in response to the state-condoned terrorism of Iran, where radical students had held American diplomats hostage for 444 days before Reagan's election, releasing them just after his inauguration. …

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