Dr. Lawrence J. Korb: An Interview Looking From the Past Into the Future


For Dr. Lawrence J. Korb, working as the Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration was “Unbelievable. It was a unique opportunity to do something significant for the country.”

For me personally, it was a privilege and an honor to conduct a phone interview with Dr. Lawrence J. Korb, currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C. I became acquainted with Dr. Korb at Pittsburgh’s 46th annual World Affairs Institute for high school students, hosted at the Heinz History Center in downtown Pittsburgh. At this year’s conference, the topic of China’s construction – and subsequent militarization – of islands in the South China Sea was the primary focus. As the event’s keynote speaker, and my focus group’s personal facilitator, Dr. Korb provided a remarkable amount of insight into the many problems that our nation currently faces, particularly in the aftermath of a highly contentious presidential election.

Much of Dr. Korb’s acuity comes from his time serving as the Assistant Secretary of Defense to Casper Weinberger during President Reagan’s first term in office. When asked about his ascent to such a position, Dr. Korb replied that, “A rare combination of events really caused me to get the position. Reagan’s transition didn’t go so well and they brought me in last minute to straighten things up. With regards to his overall experience in the Department of Defense, Korb believed that, “It was a unique opportunity to do something significant.” Dr. Korb also added that, “My main goal was to work within the system; the bureaucrats were all liberal so you would think that they would be reluctant and slow to deal with military operations, but they were very much dedicated to our national security.” Korb explained that he “took full advantage of all the opportunities because I didn’t have to worry about future jobs. I am forever grateful for the experience and the things we were able to accomplish” Korb replied.

While serving in the Department of Defense, Dr. Korb faced a multitude of challenges, one of which being the termination of the military draft in 1973. Korb remarked that, “Nixon campaigned on and ended the military draft in ‘73 and favored an all-volunteer draft, which was fine, but by the 80’s things were not looking so good.” Dr. Korb decided to set up a task force with President Reagan so that they could attract “high quality people” to serve on a continual basis.

Dr. Korb attributes his ability to discern and resolve such challenging foreign and domestic policy issues to his time serving in the Navy, where he was a US Naval Flight Officer in Vietnam for 7 years. He explained that the idea of fighting in Vietnam “was great at first. We were fighting communists. We had a cause, but ultimately it wasn’t really what [the government] claimed it to be. The world was much more complex than we were led to believe.” He categorized this experience, however, as something that forever shaped his identity, saying that, “Vietnam got me interested in role of military issues as opposed to urban politics.”

When asked about the many foreign threats that America faces today, Korb remarked that, “It is my own personal belief that ISIS unnecessarily gets the most attention in the media. But the reality is that whatever happens in Raqqa or Mosul doesn’t really affect us. However, if Russia invades the Balkans, that’s a problem that affects us more.” This sentiment is shared by both Dr. Korb and the US military who rank the largest threats to America’s national security, greatest to least: Russia, North Korea, China, Iran, and ISIS.

My ensuing reaction to such a claim was that of bewilderment. I re-evaluated everything that I watched on cable news in conjunction with the content I absorbed from seemingly credible online news sources, yet still struggled to comprehend how a nation like China, one of our largest trading partners and allies, poses a larger threat to our national security than a terror group such as ISIS. The reality is that hidden behind ISIS’s morbid charade of flashy acts of terror that toy with our emotions and capture 100% of the news media’s attention, lies a highly complicated web of alliances, oil, commerce, militarization, unstable leadership, and nuclear weapons.

According to Dr. Korb, President Ronald Reagan was remarkably conscious of how to deal with such a complicated political web. In our interview, Korb communicated nothing but praise for Reagan and his Vice President/successor, George H.W. Bush. “Reagan was very smart. People didn’t think so. When he was interested in an issue he would really get into it. He was also very up to speed on issues, because people forget that he wrote all of his radio broadcasts himself. I was told by one of his people that he had an actor’s mind, so he would be really easy to get ready for important meetings.” When asked about Reagan’s Vice President and successor to the Oval Office, Korb remarked, “I thought George H.W. Bush was a great president and was better than Reagan in the sense that he was able to compromise with congress and ended the cold war without expanding nato, and also ended 1st gulf war. It was rather unfortunate that he lost in ‘92.”

Flash forward 20 years or so, and Dr. Korb can be seen working as an advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and throwing support towards Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Korb believes that the TPP is an “economic power. It will get all of the countries in the Pacific, besides Chinese, together and they’ll grow. Without the TPP, China will take the lead economically and prevent other countries from ever growing their own economies, which ultimately is not in our best interest.”

From Korb’s perspective, “Obama understood complexities and strategic restraint. The Pakistanis and Turks are theoretically our allies, but they have different views and agendas, so we have to be able to balance all these things. He will go down like Eisenhower as a great foreign policy president, even though people thought he was too patient.”

It is evident that Dr. Korb does not adhere to party-loyal, partisan politics when it comes to matters of national security. In most cases he believes that it behooves policymakers to work across the aisle and provide comprehensive bipartisan solutions to both foreign and domestic issues so that all Americans remain safe.

The biggest takeaway from listening to Dr. Korb speak at the conference and engaging in a one on one conversation with him, is that the world is not as simple as we’re often led to believe. It is neither plausible nor responsible to deal with pressing security threats, in which millions of lives are at stake, in 150 characters, a thirty second commercial, or a proverbial soundbite. It is necessary to look beyond partisan qualms and employ the fine art of compromise and negotiation to devise a solution that lies in the best interest of all Americans, not just some. The events that occur globally on a daily basis require adaptable solutions that don’t always adhere to one particular mindset or ideology.

Dr. Korb concluded our interview by remarking, “I am concerned that the world is very complex and you have to be patient. There are no simple solutions to foreign policy issues.” His message to the President-Elect, Donald Trump: “Keep Obama’s foreign policy when it comes to ISIS, and especially NATO.”

Dr. Korb remains a prominent figure in the military world today, appearing on news networks both nationally and internationally to proliferate his knowledge of foreign affairs.

Photography by Ralph Alswang https://www.flickr.com/photos/americanprogressaction/3618816599