US Operation Eldorado Canyon 1986: Just or Unjust to What Degree?

Andrew Wedgwood and A. Walter Dorn


Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya was subjected to two armed interventions from the air: in US Operation Eldorado Canyon (1986) and in NATO operation Allied Protector (2011), which was preceeded by a short US-led operation called Odyssey Dawn (2011). Were these operations ethically justified? Through the lens of the Just War Tradition, seven moral principles are assessed in both qualitative and quantitative fashion. The analysis applies the novel Just War Index to the 1986 US operation and compares it to the 2011 case. The latter is the subject of a more indepth analysis in another publication ("NATO’s Libya Campaign 2011: Just or Unjust to What Degree?", forthcoming)


            The US intervention in Libya in 1986, involving a short bombing campaign, was different from the 2011 intervention in purpose, duration, authorization, execution and results. Naturally an analysis using the same just war criteria yields different results. For the sake of brevity, the analysis is shorter but numerical values are also given for each criterion. The order of assessment will be identical to the contemporary intervention, beginning with just cause.

The 1986 US bombing campaign in Libya was executed on the evening of 14 April and morning of 15 April under the direction of then US President Ronald Reagan. The joint Navy and Air Force action, dubbed Operation Eldorado Canyon, involved approximately 100 aircraft. The bombing itself lasted only 10-15 minutes and achieved significant damage to most of the selected targets.

            The bombings were intended to deter Qaddafi from sponsoring further terrorism, to punish him for a litany of prior terrorist acts including the Berlin nightclub bombing, and to signal that terrorist acts sponsored by rogue states would exact a heavy toll.[i] Qaddafi was undoubtedly a leading sponsor of terrorism at the time having reportedly trained 7,000-8,000 terrorists per year and was second only to Iran in the financing of terrorist organizations.[ii] Given that the United States also had intelligence indicating that Libya was planning to strike again,[iii] it is assessed that the United States had considerable force behind the argument of just cause.

Just Cause: +2

            In considering legitimate authority, the importance of multilateralism to President Reagan’s administration paled in comparison to that of President Obama. After approaching European allies to support its case for action and subsequently being rejected, it was clear that it would be impossible to build broad international support. Consequently, President Reagan carried forth with the operation unilaterally. Not only had European allies Spain and France actively opposed the unilateral US action by denying use of their airspace but the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) followed suit and passed resolution 41/38 (1986) condemning the bombings.[iv] The UNSC also considered a draft resolution to condemn the bombings that gained the requisite support of 9 of the 15 Council members only to be vetoed by the United States, United Kingdom, and France.[v] Despite strong domestic support for the strikes the near complete failure to gain UN authorization or significant international support for its action greatly detracted from the criterion of legitimate authority.

 Legitimate Authority: -2


            A critique of right intent shows parallels to the criticisms about the 2011 intervention. Much of the opposition to the 1986 strikes centred about the American desire for regime change and the use of military force. The New York Times produced an article alleging that the bombing was the culmination of a five-year campaign designed by President Reagan to assassinate Qaddafi; a notion supported by additional evidence from US officials who admitted “ . . .we wanted to provoke Qaddafi into responding so we could stick it to him . . . ”.[vi] But the Chief of West German intelligence countered the evidence that Libya was connected to the Berlin bombing and stated that the United States had exaggerated the Libyan terrorist threat through propaganda, and had requested Egypt to invade Libya, and also purposely provoked a limited military engagement in the Gulf of Sidra in 1985.[vii] It is thus reasonable to suspect that military intervention and the potential for Qaddafi’s removal were not simply ulterior motives to countering terrorism, but primary motives.

Right Intent: -2


            Net benefit must be assessed against the stated objectives of the use of force, in this case the punishment and deterrence of terrorism. In the years following the bombings, evidence suggests that there was an overall reduction in the incidence and severity of terrorist actions against Americans.[viii] In the long term, Qaddafi’s gradual normalization of relations in the international community may have been spurred in part by the American threat of bombing and other unilateral diplomatic and economic actions, however, UN-sponsored sanctions beginning in 1992 likely played a greater role.[ix] It has been concluded that the limited bombing campaign achieved a degree of success relative to its stated aims.

 Net Benefit: +1


The last resort assessment draws heavily from the conclusions about right intent in that President Reagan’s decision to use force was the culmination of a much longer series of actions. In fact, the bombing marked a significant shift in US policy from dealing with terrorism strictly as a law enforcement issue to one of military deterrence. The policy shift was made owing to the ineffectiveness of a variety of other actions with respect to the core problem of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism. The lengthy campaign against Libya originated in 1982 with the imposition of a US ban on technology transfers and the import of oil in 1982.[x] The freezing of Libyan assets, severance of economic ties, and ordering Americans to leave Libya in early 1986 marked a steady progression to the use of force.[xi] However, internal debate within the US government prior to the strikes regarding whether or not all other options had been exhausted corroborate the conclusion that the decision to use force had been pre-determined and that negotiation was never considered as a serious option.

Last Resort: -1


            The assessment of right conduct is simplified owing to the brief duration and limited number of targets in the operation. The first set of targets centred about the integrated air defence sites that posed a clear threat to American aircraft. There were five additional targets spread between Benghazi and Tripoli that were described as C2, communications, intelligence, logistics, and training facilities directly related to terrorism.[xii] They included Qaddafi’s residential compound. Unfortunately, many of these sites were found in heavily populated areas thus increasing the risk of civilian casualties. The bombings were done at night in order to minimize risk to American aircraft. Recognizing the risk to civilians, the Americans selected the F-111 Aardvark as it was the most sophisticated and accurate bomber available. Strict ROEs were imposed requiring pilots to positively identify targets on multiple systems.[xiii] Despite these efforts, crew error resulted in a single stray bomb that landed near the French embassy killing 37 civilians and wounding another 93. Qaddafi declared that amongst the dead was Qaddafi’s adopted daughter. In a single night, casualties approached comparable figures to the entire seven-month campaign of Operation Unified Protector. While the technology at the time was less sophisticated, it may also be argued that there were other ways of deterring and punishing Qaddafi that represented less risk to the population. The targeting of isolated military installations would have served the purpose of both deterrence and punishment albeit less directly. The strategic effect of deterrence should have been afforded more weight relative to the specific punishment of terrorists given the potential for tragic outcomes. The loss of life, especially civilian, means the overall conduct was hardly commendable.

 Right Conduct: 0


            The final criterion, proportionality of means, offers a more positive result. The briefness of the conflict and the small number of targets provided for a strictly limited use of force. The targets selected demonstrated a desire to avoid significant destruction of the military or economic fabric of Libyan society.[xiv] While the total number of aircraft exceeded those used by the United Kingdom to conduct the entire Falkland Islands campaign, much of this was owed to the overly complicated logistics associated with conducting the operation based out of airfields in the United Kingdom thousands of kilometers away. The specific targeting of the Bab al-Aziziyah barracks in Tripoli did, however, present significant risk of unintended consequences. The barracks were considered the center of the terrorist C2 network, but were also the occasional home of the Qaddafi family.[xv] The home was specifically targeted resulting in the death and injury of several Qaddafi family members.[xvi] Had Qaddafi been killed, Libya would likely have been plunged into chaos, especially given the lack of strong governmental institutions and the absence of a proper political process for his replacement.


Proportionality of Means: +1

            Having assessed the two Libyan interventions, separated by a quarter century, their relative justness can be ascertained.


Comparing Two Conflicts


            The criteria scores from both cases are compiled in Table 1. The average of the scores, termed the Just War Index, reflects the notion that no war is likely to be seen as fully just or unjust. The JWI of +1.6 for the 2011 intervention indicates substantial ethical justness while the 1986 operation could not make it into the just category, though it was not substantially unjust either.

Table 1. Summary of Just War Criteria Scores for

Operations Eldorado Canyon (1986) and Unified Protector (2011)


Eldorado Canyon

Unified Protector

Just Cause



Legitimate Authority



Right Intent



Net Benefit



Last Resort



Right Conduct



Proportionality of Means



JWI (average)



JWI (as percentage, 0-100 scale)




Operation Eldorado Canyon differs remarkably from Unified Protector with regard to legitimate authority, right intent, and last resort. The unilateralist action of President Reagan was reflective of his “big stick diplomacy” approach to the international community. While unilateral action left him free of the complications of wielding an unruly coalition and catered to a domestic audience, it also resulted in leaving his administration open to considerable criticism for what was viewed as a penchant for the use of force over alternative means. Operation Eldorado Canyon enjoyed neither the legitimacy nor international legality afforded by UN authorization.

            By contrast, Operation Unified Protector was executed by a broad coalition of states presenting enormous political and logistical challenges but remaining in accordance with international law. The payoff was a broadly supported effort that enjoyed convincing legality and a much higher degree of legitimacy. While abstentions and the fundamentally flawed UNSC construct[xvii] (having rather arbitrary or self-centered veto power) undoubtedly reduced the degree of legitimacy its approval offered, the significant support provided by regional organizations largely offset this weakness, AU complaints notwithstanding. Last Resort was also significantly positive despite a hurried (three weeks) timeline from UNSC 1970 to the first bomb on target. The imminence of a potential genocide in Benghazi at the hands of a bellicose Qaddafi was averted only as a result of quick action on the parts of both the UNSC as well as the coalition which formed under difficult circumstances. Interestingly, Operation Unified Protector is weaker than Eldorado Canyon in two significant areas.

            Operation Eldorado Canyon’s limited scope was specifically designed to avoid creating a situation that would clearly necessitate continued US responsibility in Libya after the strike. Since there were few unintended consequences, both net benefit and proportionality of means were strong relative to the stated war aims. The limited scope was in part due to the need to avoid escalation and the potential for a larger confrontation with the Soviet Union. By contrast, in 2011 the shift from protection of civilians to the broader UNSC 1973 interpretation of regime change greatly complicated the intervention’s end game. While NATO was able to neatly extract itself, the United Nations was left with the more complex political implications that resulted from Qaddafi’s untimely death. The strength of the militias and the relative weakness of both the central government and UNSMIL leave the net benefit and proportionality of means categories incomplete and only marginally positive. There is, however, hope that these scores may increase provided UNSMIL and the Libyan government are able to gather strength, cease the widespread abuses being conducted by the militias, and implement a truly representative government for Libyans.

In attempting to assess the missions from a complete perspective, the average scores may be converted to a percentage value. By using a typical passing score of 50% (admittedly arbitrary) the overall justness of the two missions may be assessed in terms of pass/fail judgments.[xviii] By this measure, Operation Eldorado Canyon narrowly fails the ethical threshold of the Just War tradition at 48% while Operation Unified Protector easily passes at 79%.



[i]. William C. Martel, “1986 Raid on Libya,” in Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 152.

[ii]. Henry W. Prunckun Jr., and Philip B. Mohr, “Military Deterrence of International Terrorism: An Evaluation of Operation El Dorado Canyon.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 20, issue 3 (July-September 1997): 3-5; (accessed 19 January 2012).

[iii]. Martel, 1986 Raid on Libya…, 158.

[iv]. United Nations General Assembly, Resolutions and Decisions Adopted by the General Assembly During Its Forty-First Session, 16 December–19 December 1986, A/41/53. (accessed 7 March 2012; Prunckun, “Military Deterrence of…”, 4.

[v]. United Nations Security Council, 2682nd Meeting, Minutes, S/PV.2682, 21 April 1986.;   accessed 7 March 2012; John Quigley, “Libya: Qaddafi’s Air Conditioner,” in The Ruses for War: American Interventionism Since World War II (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992), 224.

[vi]. Lyn Boyd-Judson, “The Lockerbie Negotiations: Granting the Enemy a Moral Universe,” in Strategic Moral Diplomacy: Understanding the Enemy’s Moral Universe (Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press, 2011), 68; Zoubir, Handbook of US . . ., 264.

[vii]. Boyd-Judson, “The Lockerbie Negotiations…”, 67; Quigley, “Libya: Qaddafi’s Air…”, 225; Martel, 1986 Raid on Libya…, 154.

[viii]. Prunckun, “Military Deterrence of…”, 4.

[ix]. Black, “Muammar Gaddafi and Libya…”, 256.

[x]. Zoubir, Handbook of US . . ., 264.

[xi]. Martel, 1986 Raid on Libya…, 154.

[xii]. Quigley, “Libya: Qaddafi’s Air…”, 223.

[xiii]. Judy G. Endicott, “Raid on Libya: Operation Eldorado Canyon,” in Short of War: Major USAF Contingency Operations 1947–1997, ed. A. Timothy Warnock, 145–155 (Washington, D.C.: Air University Press, 2000), 149–150.

[xiv]. Martel, 1986 Raid on Libya…, 158.

[xv]. Endicott, “Raid on Libya…”, 149.

[xvi]. Quigley, “Libya: Qaddafi’s Air…”, 228.

[xvii]. “Without Security Council Reform, UN Will Lose Credibility – General Assembly Chief,” UN News Centre, 16 May 2011. (accessed 21 April 2012.

[xviii]. A. Walter Dorn, “Warfighting, Counterinsurgency and Peacekeeping in Afghanistan: Three Strategies Examined in the Light of Just War Theory,” in War, Human Dignity and Nation Building: Theological Perspectives on Canada’s Role in Afghanistan, ed. Gary D. Badcock and Darren C. Marks, (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 16–70.