Arrias on Politics: Afghanistan, Libya and the Coral Sea

Editor’s Note: Seventy-five years ago, the analysis of what had happened in the Coral Sea in the first carrier-vs.-carrier encounter of the Pacific War. Nearly half the survivors of the oiler Neosho were still adrift, Lady Lexington was on the bottom and Yorktown was gravely wounded. Against that stark backdrop, Australia had been spared the depredations of the invading Japanese, and the Yanks were feeling a new surge of confidence after months of reeling defeat. Arrias shares some perspective on the art of strategic planning, and how it can go disastrously wrong. As always, Arrias is a real live human being and he comments from Tidewater VA.

– Vic

Afghanistan, Libya and the Coral Sea

Every week articles ricochet around Washington calling for a “new strategy,” especially for the Middle East. Last week was the 75th anniversary of one of the strategically significant battles of World War II, perhaps we could draw some lessons from it.

The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 7-8, 1942) pitted two US Navy carriers against two Japanese carriers. In the end, the Japanese lost most of their aircraft (and pilots), but both carriers survived, one seriously damaged. The US lost one carrier (Lexington), another (Yorktown) was damaged. It was tactically a draw from the US perspective.

The Japanese strategy had originally been to: 1) seize islands in the central and south Pacific while neutralizing the US Navy; 2) consolidate their gains; and 3) defeat the expected US – Allied attack from within their strengthened perimeter. But, after their victories of 1940 and 1941, they’d modified the plan and extended the perimeter to include seizing Midway Island and all of New Guinea and all of the Solomons.
However, the loss of their aircraft and aircrew, and the damage to one of their carriers, made the move into southern New Guinea questionable and showed the strategy’s overall fragility.

The Japanese knew – strategically – US “directions.” Between 1940 and early 1942 the US had: ordered the construction of 7 Essex class carriers, (5 ordered before the attack on Pearl Harbor, that would’ve been common knowledge in the Japanese embassy in Washington); 10 new US battleships recently commissioned or under construction; 18 submarines launched in the previous two years; 6 more under construction in early 1942. The US had a much larger population, a much larger economy and far more natural resources. Japan was unlikely to win a war of attrition (as Admiral Yamamoto had pointed out). The only hope Japan had for victory was to break our will. Yet 5 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor the US had conducted a reprisal attack on Tokyo (the Doolittle Raid) and fought the Japanese Navy to a draw in the Coral Sea. US production efforts were in high gear and accelerating. This should’ve convinced Tokyo that US will was unbroken and Japan’s strategy wasn’t working. It didn’t.

Perhaps they could’ve sued for peace, perhaps not. There are a thousand ‘what ifs.’ But the lesson for us is that it’s important to recognize when a strategy fails. Colin Powell was famous for reminding those around him: “don’t fall in love with the plan.”

Consider: What was the original US goal in Afghanistan? Find and destroy Al Qaeda. That quickly evolved into find and destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban. 15 years later Usama bin Laden is dead, Al Qaeda has changed, grown and spread, and the Taliban controls much (perhaps half) of Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the goal was to unseat Saddam Hussein and eliminate his WMD programs. Saddam is gone, the WMD are gone. But the goal changed (almost as soon as the invasion began), becoming not simply “nation building,” but rather: “Western Style Democracy building.” Iraq nearly fell apart, ISIS rose from the ashes, sectarian violence increased. Iraq is holding together. But with a pseudo-independent Kurdistan, and the presence of significant Iranian forces, Iraq is a different country then the one we were attempting to build.

In Libya we tried to eliminate a dictator and create another Western Style Democracy; we produced a failed state.

In each case US strategy unraveled, in some cases fairly quickly. Central to that failure is the disconnect between goals and strategies; in each case our leadership “fell in love” with the plan.

Three points can help clarify strategic thinking; we should keep them in mind as we move forward, in the Middle East, in East Asia, and elsewhere.

1) The Goal must be crystal clear – Everyone thinks they know what the goal is: they don’t.

2) The Goal must be achievable – Napoleon had a “great” plan for invading Russia. It didn’t work. It couldn’t work. The corollary here is that great goals always require great assets.

3) The Goal must be supported by most of the population – By 1945 War Bond sales were falling; polls showed many Americans were willing to negotiate with Japan.

As the new Administration tries to address the problems it’s been handed, the place to start is clearly defining what we’re trying to achieve, whether in north Korea, the South China Sea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or the Middle East. The last several administrations failed to do so. Let’s not repeat the lessons of the past.

Copyright 2017 Arrias

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