Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a defense policy expert whose Washington tenure spans five presidential administrations, fields the following question a lot.
How does a guy who served as President Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense end up working for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded by John Podesta, who was chief of staff in the Bill Clinton White House?
Korb, engaging and expansive during a recent Diplomat interview in his cluttered downtown office overlooking the Washington Monument, took nearly 20 minutes to answer the query, wending through his career path and at least a dozen prominent names from the American defense industry and politics. His lengthy explanation boiled down to this: The American military simply can’t afford to save the world — and there’s nothing partisan about that cold-hard fact.
“I always knew [the Defense Department] could live with less and there were a lot of weapons we didn’t need,” Korb said. “No matter how much you spend on defense you can’t buy perfect security. You have to take a look at what the threat is and what you really need and try to do it in a cost-effective way.”
Korb said Reagan, part of whose legacy is ramping up military spending to end the Cold War, actually cut defense spending by 10 percent from the Jimmy Carter era. He speculated that the now-deceased GOP icon would have been appalled at the excesses of the current Pentagon, which escalated spending to stratospheric levels in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“If Reagan came back today he’d work here [at the Center for American Progress], not at the Heritage Foundation,” Korb proclaimed, referring to the well-known conservative think tank.
Korb, who turns 74 next month, built a prodigious Washington career speaking truth to America’s powerful military-industrial complex — not as a stridently critical outsider, but as the ultimate insider. Today, Korb’s expertise on military matters is sought by people and places as diverse as the college lecture circuit, foreign governments, editors at Huffington Post, Foreign Policy and The Washington Diplomat, as well as President Barack Obama, whom he advised during the 2012 campaign.
A one-time Naval Flight Officer who earned a Ph.D. in 1969, Korb spent the 1970s teaching government at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and then management at the Naval War College. At the same time, he was shuttling to Washington to help craft defense policy prescriptions for the American Enterprise Institute, one of America’s foremost conservative think tanks. In addition to serving as director of defense studies at AEI, he was also vice president of corporate operations at Raytheon.
After serving on Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential campaign, Korb got the call to become Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, installations and logistics, which put him in charge of about 70 percent of the Pentagon’s budget.
“I looked at it as a contest between contending factions — the military services, the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the Congress — and I’d speak out about the defense budget,” Korb recalled, noting that his arrival at the Pentagon was met with considerable skepticism by the defense establishment.
“It wasn’t that I was this [pro-defense] hard-liner,” Korb said with a laugh. “In fact, they weren’t even going to let me in because I wasn’t a hard-liner.”
Lately, Korb has written frequently about the federal budget sequester’s impact on the Pentagon, which recently announced that some 600,000 civilian employees will be forced to take a furlough of 11 days to save $1.8 billion as part of the sequester’s mandated cutbacks.
Critics of defense cuts have seized on the furloughs to warn that the U.S. military is being “hollowed out” following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, much as it was in the 1970s after Vietnam.
But others such as Korb say not so fast, pointing out that year-on-year defense spending has roughly doubled since 9/11. Today, the United States accounts for nearly 45 percent of all defense spending on the planet — and shows little signs of dramatically slowing down. (The defense budget as a percentage of the U.S. economy, however, is still less than its Cold War peak, mostly because the size of the economy is much larger now.)
The Defense Department’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget comes to $638 billion, including a base budget of $526.6 billion. The Pentagon has already agreed to roughly $480 billion in cuts over the next decade as part of the Budget Control Act, although when adjusted for inflation, real spending would stay the same or slightly increase — even though the war in Iraq is over and the one in Afghanistan is nearing an end.
Sequestration would lop another 10 percent from the Pentagon’s 10-year spending, or about $500 billion, a prospect that has alarmed members of Congress and the lucrative defense industry.
Korb calls the 10 percent spending cut necessary, but also dumb because the across-the-board approach doesn’t target the most wasteful programs.
“The sequestration level is fine, it’s the process that is horrible,” he lamented. “The Pentagon doesn’t have a money problem, they have a management problem.”
Korb elaborated in a piece on the left-leaning ThinkProgress website in April.
“Sequestration will cut $472 billion from the Pentagon over the next decade, or less than $50 billion a year, but to be clear: the sequestration cuts are the first real cuts to the military budget in over a decade,” Korb wrote. “Even with the cuts in effect (a reduction of $47 billion this fiscal year), we will still be spending more in real terms on our military in 2013 than we did in 2006. While the method of the sequestration cuts is certifiably terrible, the actual amount to be cut is not unreasonable.”
Instead of automatic, indiscriminate cuts, Korb says they should be aimed at specific programs and hardware, such as the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Time magazine labeled the “most expensive weapon ever built.”
At a price tag of nearly $400 billion to taxpayers (about $100 million per plane, though some estimates put it as high as $200 million), the F-35 has been plagued by a string of delays and breakdowns over the last decade — and isn’t even operational yet.
“It’s not something you need to fight al-Qaeda, so why the hell are we rushing it?” Korb asked in The Diplomat interview.
Other areas that should be on the chopping block, according to Korb:
• Eliminate the Navy’s purchase of the over-budget F-35C jet and instead purchase the effective and affordable F/A-18E/F jet for a savings of about $17 billion over 10 years.
• Reduce the size of ground forces to their prewar levels to save $16 billion over the next decade.
• Reform the Pentagon’s outdated health care programs to save roughly $40 billion over 10 years.
• Reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons to 1,100 by 2022 from about 1,700 today for a savings of more than $28 billion over 10 years.
“Unnecessary defense spending does not make us safer; it diverts resources away from other critical investments here at home that create jobs and rebuild our infrastructure,” Korb argues in the report “The Pentagon Must Carry Its Weight,” co-written with Alex Rothman and Max Hoffman. “Moreover, many of the big-ticket items in the Pentagon’s budget request are ill suited for dealing with the complex transnational threats facing the country today, serve only to reinforce the United States’ overwhelming superiority in conventional and nuclear weaponry, and come at a considerable cost to American taxpayers.”
Korb frequently points outs that some of that taxpayer money could be better used for diplomatic missions at the State Department.
In fact, the State Department’s requested fiscal 2014 budget (which it shares with USAID) comes in at $47.8 billion — less than one-tenth of the Pentagon’s request. Total international affairs spending generally amounts to about 1 percent of all federal spending, and only a sliver of that goes toward diplomatic security.
Korb’s son is a U.S. Foreign Service officer who just started an assignment in Beijing, so the defense expert admits to being a bit “biased” toward State Department missions. But he said he has long considered the agency to be underfunded. A lack of competitive salaries forces many of the most talented young diplomats to give up and enter the private sector, he notes.
“They haven’t gotten a raise in three years because civilian government salaries are frozen. Are they going to stay? No,” Korb said. “They don’t have as many Foreign Service officers as they need.”
He also argues that the military’s growing incursion into civilian duties typically left to State Department or other federal employees overseas is a disturbing trend that further drives up the Pentagon’s costs.
“Here’s the thing about the military: Let’s say I don’t have the people I need at State or USAID or Agriculture. I can go into the reserves and find somebody in civilian life and order them to active duty,” he said.
But he added that in most cases, military personnel are trained to fight, not to do diplomatic outreach or nation building — and that’s often clear to civilians in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Their presence intimidates foreigners who see them as a threat.
“If I’m a soldier or a Marine and I come to a village to help you, as opposed to an aid worker — it’s different,” Korb said. “I don’t blame the military guys. Toward the end of Iraq we’re doing these provincial reconstruction teams and all that kind of stuff. The other thing we did when we didn’t have enough people from civilian agencies — we went to contractors. That creates a whole different set of problems.”
Asked why the Pentagon — notorious for bloated budgets — simply can’t control its spending, Korb said the answer is a complicated confluence of bureaucracy and presidential and parochial politics.
“The military obviously never wants to cut because you can’t buy perfect security and anything can happen,” Korb explained. “If you’re the president, you’ll pay a political price for ordering cuts that leave room for ‘weak on defense’ accusations. And there are members of Congress — well-meaning people — who sympathize with that point of view. Then there are others who are worried that wherever you cut it’s going to cause temporary problems with some people,” he added, referring to job losses in a certain congressional districts.
In fact, military leaders sometimes plead with members of Congress to shut down needless pet projects, only to be rebuffed and see spending actually rise. In part that’s because defense contractors have become adept at divvying up and sprinkling manufacturing sites in hundreds of congressional districts throughout the country, making them a sacred cow for lawmakers reluctant to see their constituents lose jobs.
Still, spending taxpayer money — and least in Korb’s experience — has never been a problem for much of the Pentagon brass. He recalled during Reagan’s administration when defense spending was on the rise toward the end of the Cold War that then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger argued for more money and new programs “to send a signal to the Soviets.”
“The services didn’t even have enough programs” to spend all the money Congress agreed to throw at them, Korb said. “When we asked them, ‘What do you want that hasn’t been funded?’ — they didn’t even have enough programs to get to that number. They came up with them! We didn’t have to ask them twice.”
Korb then plucked a copy of Foreign Policy off his desk and read aloud from a recent op-ed by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is among the most hawkish members of Congress.
“We have to acknowledge an inconvenient fact: Sequestration has occurred, in part, because a growing public frustration with the culture of waste and inefficiency at the Defense Department went unaddressed for too long,” McCain wrote. “During my time in the Senate, I have witnessed the emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process. This system can now be said to be successful only in one respect: turning billions of taxpayer dollars into weapons systems that are consistently delivered late, flawed, and vastly over budget — if, that is, these systems are delivered at all.”
“That’s John McCain!,” Korb thundered with a rueful laugh.
Korb had kind words for new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former senator from Nebraska who was confirmed in March despite a disastrous confirmation hearing during which he was attacked on everything from his views on Israel to his proclivity to slash military spending.
Korb vigorously disputed the notion propagated by some during Hagel’s contentious confirmation process that combat service is irrelevant to the job performance of a defense secretary. He cited a pressing issue — the growth of military pay — as an example where Hagel’s experience matters.
“People could say, ‘What do you know? You don’t know what it’s like to put your life on the line,'” Korb suggested, then assuming Hagel’s position: “Uh, yes I do.”
“Experience shouldn’t be the only thing but the fact of the matter is it helps,” Korb added. “All other things being equal, I want someone who has the experience. I think he’s going to be fine.”
Asked about America’s interventionist tendencies abroad, Korb recalled a story from his own experience in Vietnam before the height of the war. He said he and his fellow soldiers were on a swift boat in Cam Ranh Bay, on Vietnam’s southeastern coast, when they got lost after dark. Korb, who was fluent in French, noticed a sign along the river that said something about minding God “because you might meet your maker.” The sentiment indicated to Korb that the village was Catholic, so he told his commanding officer to pull over, where, indeed, they encountered Catholic monks, who gave them food and directions. The monks, recalling the French occupation of Vietnam, which ended after World War II, also gave the U.S. soldiers some advice.
“He said, ‘If you guys think you’re going to make out any better than the French here, think again,'” Korb said, adding that he never forgot the implications of that advice.
“We are not like the colonials — we don’t want to colonize these people, but other people don’t see us that way.”
Korb said America’s lesson in Vietnam should have been applied in Iraq and Afghanistan — and to virtually any overseas conflict. Korb cautioned against military involvement in Syria, which is in the throes of a bloody civil war. Any such commitment should be enjoined by a strong coalition of other countries, he said.
“You have to do a cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “When we went into the Balkans, we had the U.N. and NATO. We couldn’t get the U.N. the second time for Kosovo, but we got NATO.”
He said America’s strength today is in its stealthier military footprint, relying on a counterterrorism approach that doesn’t involve full-scale war.
“We should be playing to our advantages with special forces and drones — leaving aside the whole question of legality — that’s the way to do it,” he said, noting that the United States was able to kill al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone strike in Yemen — a far more palatable prospect than occupying the desperately poor, strife-riven country.
“Some problems you’ve got to live with,” Korb said. “This idea that we can solve the [world’s] problems and get it all done — we just don’t have the wherewithal.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.