Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
An existing dispute over the Gulf of Sidra provided the United States the opportunity to do just that. In 1973, Gaddafi had claimed ownership of the gulf, a wide U-shaped indentation carved out of the Libyan coastline between Misrata and Benghazi. More specifically, he asserted that anyone entering the gulf—crossing what he called the “line of death”—would be violating Libyan territorial waters and airspace and therefore courting trouble.
The United States had rejected Gaddafi’s claim without pressing the issue.
Under President Reagan, that changed. In August 1981, invoking what it called “freedom of navigation,” the U.S. Sixth Fleet initiated a “stair step” exercise using “progressively more assertive military actions” to challenge Gaddafi.
This involved dispatching the carriers
across the “line of death” to elicit a response.
Gaddafi rose to the bait, scrambling jet fighters to confront the intruders. Although more than a little shadowboxing ensued, the outcome was never in doubt: On August 19, a pair of U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcats shot down two Libyan Su-22s engaging in aggressive maneuvers.
For the White House, it was the perfect outcome: We win, they lose. Here was tangible evidence that with Silver Screen Six in the Oval Office, America wasn’t taking any more guff. To commemorate the achievement, as a trophy of sorts, the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, has on permanent display an F-14 similar to those that participated in the mission.
Yet as so often in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, the victory proved considerably less than advertised. Without actually confiscating cash or car keys, the point of the exercise was to make the delinquent teenager toe the line. In that regard, it fell short. In point of fact, the confrontation settled nothing. Gaddafi refused to behave or even to shut up.
Incidents of anti-Western terrorism, some specifically directed at U.S. targets, others only incidentally involving Americans, continued to accumulate.
In December 1983, just two months after the deadly attack on the Marine compound in Beirut, terrorists blew up the U.S. embassy annex in Kuwait, killing five. The kidnappings of American intelligence agents, journalists, and clergymen working in Lebanon became commonplace. In September 1984, a truck bomb destroyed the U.S. embassy annex there. Among the dead were two Americans.
By this time, in a directive called “Combating Terrorism,” Reagan had ordered the Pentagon to “develop a military strategy that is supportive of an active, preventive program to combat state-sponsored terrorism,” including “a full range of military options.”
This top-secret policy decision moved the United States incrementally closer toward a fully militarized response to the problems posed by terrorism. Here was a de facto first draft of the Bush Doctrine of preventive war that reached maturity after 9/11.
Itself engaged in a massive military buildup, the Reagan administration did not harbor an aversion to the threat or use of violence. It merely subscribed to a convenient double standard that classified terrorism as illegitimate violence employed pursuant to illegitimate objectives. Under certain circumstances nuking cities might be permissible, but terrorism never. In Washington, the gripes, grievances, and political motives of those perpetrating acts of terrorism had no standing. It was, therefore, unnecessary to take them into consideration.
With quite literally nothing to talk about—the very idea of talk implied appeasement—the logic of resorting to military action to counter this evil phenomenon appeared unassailable.
Reagan’s directive on combating terrorism did not mention Libya specifically. Even though Gaddafi offered moral encouragement and financial rewards to those who perpetrated acts of anti-Western terrorism, establishing unequivocal Libyan complicity in specific attacks did not come easily. Yet Gaddafi’s brazenness combined with Libya’s relative puniness made that country the ideal venue to demonstrate the fate that awaited any state tempted to defy Washington’s prohibition on terrorism. Striking effectively at organizations such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, or the Palestine Liberation Front posed sizable challenges. By comparison, Tripoli presented a fixed, visible, and even inviting target—just the place to test the viability of a counterterrorism strategy based on “active prevention, preemption, and retaliation.”
As terrorist attacks mounted—episodes in 1985 alone included Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad hijacking a TWA jetliner bound from Athens to Rome, the seizure of the cruise ship
by members of the Palestine Liberation Front, and murderous airport assaults in Rome and Vienna attributed to the Abu Nidal organization—the administration’s exasperation with the Libyan dictator festered. Not for the last time in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, U.S. policymakers concluded that eliminating a single bad actor held the key to solving a much larger problem.
By January 1986, the Reagan administration had concluded that taking out Gaddafi had become imperative. That month the president issued another policy directive on Libya, ratcheting up economic sanctions and ordering the Sixth Fleet back into the Gulf of Sidra to “demonstrate U.S. resolve and capability.”
In his diary, Reagan wrote that should “Libya’s top clown” engage in further terrorist activity, “we will have targets in mind & instantly respond with a h—l of a punch.”
As far as the president was concerned, time was running out for the Gaddafi regime.
The moment bears comparison to late 2002, when the George W. Bush administration persuaded itself that it needed to take out Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. The sense of urgency, the rejection of alternatives to military action, the absence of attention to what might ensue after the United States had eliminated its prey: All were present on both occasions. In calculating what effecting regime change was likely to require, however, the two administrations differed. To topple the subject of his ire, Bush was willing to commit more than a few chips. By comparison, in going after Gaddafi, Reagan took a miserly approach. The ensuing campaign violated this fundamental maxim: If you will the end, you must will the means.
In late March 1986, hoping to goad Gaddafi into a showdown, the Sixth Fleet, under the command of Vice Admiral Frank Kelso, once again ventured south of the “line of death.” This time three U.S. carriers, accompanied by a panoply of supporting warships, took up the ostensible task of keeping the Gulf of Sidra accessible to all the world’s mariners. Libyan forces duly responded by launching SA-5 air defense missiles at F-14s flying combat air patrols. Although the missiles missed their target, the Americans seized the opportunity to sink two Libyan patrol boats and destroy a land-based radar site. Kelso’s armada was stoked for a big fight. Rather than escalating hostilities further, however, the clearly overmatched Libyan forces broke contact. As before, the outcome appeared plain: We win, they lose.
By all rights, Gaddafi ought to have conceded defeat. So at least Washington expected. “The Libyans have learned something from us,” Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated with satisfaction.
Much to the Reagan administration’s annoyance, however, the lessons didn’t sink in. Gaddafi remained defiant.
Then, on April 5, a bomb detonated in a West Berlin disco frequented by GIs, killing two Americans and wounding dozens more. Citing radio intercepts indicating prior Libyan knowledge of the attack, the United States blamed Gaddafi. Here, finally, was the elusive smoking gun. Just days later, at a press conference, Reagan lambasted Gaddafi as “this mad dog of the Middle East” and denounced his goal of “Moslem fundamentalist revolution.”
He also ordered the Pentagon to retaliate. The result was Operation El Dorado Canyon.
Planning for just such a contingency had been under way for months. Yet very formidable obstacles stood in the way of implementing Reagan’s order. For starters, NATO allies, Great Britain alone excepted, withheld cooperation. Western Europeans were not about to sign up for Reagan’s undeclared war on Gaddafi. Countries hosting U.S. air bases such as Spain and Italy refused to permit the attackers to use those facilities. Other allies such as France rejected requests to allow participating U.S. aircraft to overfly their territory.
Coordinating the simultaneous arrival of participating units—F-111 bombers from RAF Lakenheath in England and carrier-based aircraft launched from the USS
and the USS
afloat in the Mediterranean—posed a further complication. For the F-111s, the trip south from England, down the coast of France and Portugal, through the Strait of Gibraltar and east over the Mediterranean would require multiple in-flight refuelings, all conducted at night in radio silence. This round-trip of over six thousand miles was certain to tax the capabilities of the F-111, an airplane never known for its reliability. Although the navy A-6s would have an easier time reaching the target area, they could expect to face worrisome air defenses.
Far and away the biggest hurdle facing the operation was a conceptual one: the assumption that a small-scale, one-and-done bout of bombing would somehow put things right. Reagan wanted El Dorado Canyon to deliver a pointed message that Gaddafi could neither ignore nor misinterpret. Yet when it came to translating presidential intention into specific targets, military commanders struggled. The commander in chief had made his wishes clear: Punish the guilty while sparing the innocent. In practice, reconciling the two was no easy matter.
The plan that emerged after considerable internal wrangling identified five targets for destruction: two airfields, one in Tripoli and the other near Benghazi; one military training camp; a storage and assembly facility for military aircraft; and, most important, the Bab al-Aziziyah Barracks, where Gaddafi maintained his headquarters and principal residence.
Bab al-Aziziyah would bear the weight of the U.S. effort.
At this point in America’s War for the Greater Middle East, the United States had not yet embraced assassination as a standard practice. That came later. For the moment, U.S. law prohibited political assassination. So killing Gaddafi outright did not figure as one of El Dorado Canyon’s stated objectives. If raining bombs on the places where the Libyan dictator lived and worked resulted in his death, the United States would treat that happy outcome as merely incidental rather than intended. But the quantity of ordnance earmarked for Bab al-Aziziyah did not qualify as incidental.
On the afternoon of April 14, with preparations complete and President Reagan having given the order to proceed, El Dorado Canyon commenced. Eighteen air force F-111s, bound for Tripoli and accompanied by tankers and other supporting aircraft, departed their bases in Great Britain and began their six-and-a-half-hour flight.
Shortly after midnight on April 15, aircraft comprising the navy’s strike force began launching from
Once airborne, they headed for Benghazi
The aim was for both forces to begin attacking their targets at 2:00
Without question, no other military establishment, with the possible exception of Israel’s, could have undertaken such a complex and demanding operation. That said, as Operation El Dorado Canyon unfolded, things did not go well. In-flight problems forced two of the eighteen F-111s to turn back while en route. Due to last-minute equipment failures, four others aborted while on the approach to their targets. A seventh missed its assigned target altogether, dropping its bombs among houses and apartment buildings and doing considerable damage to the French embassy. An eighth was shot down, with both crewmen killed.
The fifteen navy A-6 Intruders sent to strike Benghazi fared somewhat better, hammering the airfield there while destroying or damaging a number of parked aircraft. In barely ten minutes, it was over and the Americans had departed Libyan airspace.
Overall, apart from rousting the residents of Tripoli and Benghazi out of bed, the attackers had achieved at best so-so success. All that they had destroyed, with the exceptions of several dozen Libyans killed, could be replaced. Most of what they had damaged could be repaired. As for Gaddafi himself, apparently warned of the attack in advance, he had escaped unharmed.
Soon thereafter, a somber President Reagan appeared on television to inform the American people of what had occurred. The president announced that U.S. forces had “succeeded in their mission,” thereby avenging the West Berlin disco bombing. “Today we have done what we had to do,” Reagan continued. “If necessary, we shall do it again.” He expressed hope that “this preemptive action” might provide Gaddafi “with incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior.” Yet in describing the significance of the just completed action, Reagan looked beyond Gaddafi. El Dorado Canyon stood as a warning for terrorists everywhere to heed. The Libyan dictator had “counted on America to be passive,” Reagan concluded. “He counted wrong. I warned that there should be no place on Earth where terrorists can rest and train and practice their deadly skills. I meant it. I said that we would act with others, if possible, and alone if necessary to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere. Tonight, we have.”