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  • El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Quaddafi
  • Nathan Alexander
Joseph T. Stanik , El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Quaddafi. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002. 316 pp. $34.95.

Suicide bombers, preemptive military strikes, and biological weapons are now part of America's security lexicon. The "war on terrorism" after September 2001 and President George W. Bush's "preemptive" attack against Iraq have seemingly eclipsed the concerns of the Cold War (détente, containment, and the like). Some observers argue that the possible use of "weapons of mass destruction" by al Qaeda or other terrorist groups poses a graver threat now than the Soviet Union's deployment of SS-20 missiles did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. International terrorism is often depicted as a new menace of the post-Cold War era.

Yet the reality is that terrorism was more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s than it is today. Although the attack on the World Trade Center was visually spectacular, al Qaeda's threat to the United States is actually less than the danger that Italy faced in the 1970s when confronting the Red Brigades, which nearly wiped out the Italian government.

In El Dorado Canyon: Reagan's Undeclared War with Qaddafi, Joseph Stanik provides two historical antecedents for the 2003 war in Iraq. The first is America's conflict with the Barbary pirates, who harassed American and European shipping in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries off the coast of northern Africa. The American government paid hundreds of thousands of dollars and other tribute to the pirates as ransom for American ships and sailors. Thomas Jefferson had opposed these payments long before he became president, and after he ascended to the presidency in 1801 he dispatched U.S. warships to protect American vessels and eventually to assault Tripoli harbor itself. The attack (and half a dozen others) failed, but a subsequent effort, combined with those of the Europeans, forced the pasha of Tripoli to accept a treaty in 1805. (Not until 1815, however, after further naval victories over Algiers, was the United States able to put a complete end to its tribute payments.)

The second precedent, which is the focus of the book, is the U.S. relationship with Libya during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Stanik, a former naval officer, provides an account of the Reagan administration's decision-making process and a narrative of U.S. military operations against Libya in 1986. The latter are conveyed with great drama, and Stanik's grasp of the minutiae of naval weaponry and the escalation of military tactics is masterful. After Reagan came to office, he ordered more aggressive rules of engagement to facilitate the "calculated application of force" (p.42). Dogfights between U.S. F-14s and Libyan MiGs broke out over the Gulf of Sidra, as the U.S. military began to challenge the Libyan leader, Moammar Qadaffi, more directly. Hostilities culminated in a U.S. raid against Libya, codenamed Operation El Dorado Canyon, in April 1986. Stanik's gripping narrative of the raid reads like a Tom Clancy novel. U.S. F-111 bombers flew from their bases in Britain through the blackness toward their Libyan targets. In the meantime, U.S. carrier-based fighters, [End Page 139] which were responsible for eliminating Libyan ground defenses immediately before the arrival of the F-111s, coordinated their attacks with the bombers and struck Tripoli simultaneously. The narrative conveys a striking image of the U.S. pilots, desperate for fuel, jostling with one another in the air to get access to aerial refueling tankers. Unable to break radio silence, they could not locate the giant KC-10A Extenders and KC-135R Stratotankers that would keep them from crashing into the sea. An F-111 pilot finally solved the problem by doing a "little torching," as he dumped some fuel and ignited it with his afterburner, "creating a huge explosion that both lit up the sky and pointed the direction to the tanker" (p.196). All but one F-111 returned safely to the RAF Lakenheath base in the United Kingdom.

Operation El Dorado Canyon is not just about America's military...