America's New 'Anaconda Plan' in Libya

The U.S. hopes to strangle its enemies just as Union forces did 150 years ago. But don't Americans prefer going for the jugular?


Library of Congress

In Libya the squeeze is on. There will be "no let-up in the pressure" on Qaddafi's government, Obama announced, before adding: "Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we are able to wear down the regime forces."

This is not the first time that the United States has pursued a policy of slow strangulation in wartime. In May 1861, 150 years ago, at the start of the Civil War, General Winfield Scott outlined a military strategy for the North, which became known as the "Anaconda Plan."

The idea was to choke the Confederacy into submission. The Union navy would blockade the South, while northern armies steadily advanced down the Mississippi. Confederate forces would not be directly engaged and annihilated. Rather, the North would secure the Confederacy in a vice-like grip, and then wait for southern Unionists to rise up and overthrow the rebellious governors.

In Libya we're pursuing a new Anaconda Plan. NATO forces are not trying to directly destroy Qaddafi's regime. Instead, the steady application of pressure will strangle the Libyan government--and loosen Qaddafi's grip on power.

U.S. and allied air power, along with hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles, eroded Qaddafi's capacity to deploy armor and other military assets. Sanctions cut off the supply of weapons. Diplomatic pressure has also steadily heightened, with the G8 world leaders claiming that Qaddafi has "lost all legitimacy. He has no future in a free, democratic Libya. He must go." Meanwhile, NATO has encouraged high profile Libyan government defections, including eight senior officers from Qaddafi's military.

These policies represent the vice. But as in the Civil War, the United States is not planning to apply the coup de grace. Rather, Libyan rebels will perform the grunt work of regime change--with clandestine support from the CIA.

Anaconda plans have an obvious appeal--whether in 1861 or 2011. We're killing them softly with minimal force.

General Winfield Scott wrote that the North would "envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan." Similarly, in Libya, the hope is that limited U.S. and allied pressure will remove Qaddafi at the lowest humanitarian cost and with few if any American casualties.

But these "anaconda plans" also have their downsides. For one thing, they're not very popular with Americans. The traditional U.S. vision of war is to use decisive force and overthrow tyrants--with World War II as the model. Slow strangulation seems too passive and frankly un-American.

In 1861, northerners rejected Scott's cautious Anaconda Plan in favor of a reckless offensive. Rather than constrict the Confederacy, northerners wanted to go for the jugular. Scott recognized that "the greatest obstacle in the way of this plan" was "the impatience of our patriotic and loyal Union friends" for an immediate and vigorous assault. The cry rang out "to Richmond," and a Union army was hastily thrown together and promptly defeated by the Confederates at the first battle of Bull Run.

The Libyan intervention is, of course, a very different war. But criticism has tended to be of the "go big or go home" variety. Either we should steer clear of this North African morass, or we ought to strike quickly and decisively--more like the rattlesnake than the anaconda.

The hope that enemies will submit meekly to the anaconda's grip can prove illusory. In 1861, Scott dreamed that the silent majority of southern Unionists would overthrow the hot-headed Confederate leaders--but these loyalists simply didn't exist. In Libya, Qaddafi has refused to quit, and the rebels have turned out to be a ragtag band lacking the equipment or training to march on Tripoli.

Anaconda plans can evolve in ways that were never expected at the start of the campaign. What begins with slow strangulation ends in a very different form of violence. Over time, for instance, the Civil War transformed into a horrific struggle, with Union and Confederate armies lacerating each other, leaving hundreds of thousands of dead and injured.

In Libya, total war is hardly on the horizon. But the conflict has also evolved and escalated. NATO forces have deployed new hardware like British Apache helicopters and widened the targets to include sites like Qaddafi's personal compound. Originally, the aim was to protect civilians, and Obama claimed that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." But now regime change is Obama's explicit goal, so that Libyans are "finally free of 40 years of tyranny."

As the anaconda coils around its victim and tightens its grip, an apparently easy meal can prove to be far more difficult to digest.