Veteran Pentagon official brings perspectives and expertise to current and future challenges.
As posted on: The Officer — May/June 2012
Kathleen Troia “KT” McFarland, FOX News national security analyst and host of the FOXNews.Com program DEFCON3, traces her defense and national security experience back through three presidents. With the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations, she was an aide to Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council staff. She then spent a short time as a Senate Armed Services Committee staff member before joining the administration of President Ronald Reagan as a senior speechwriter for then–Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and ultimately became the principal deputy secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and Pentagon spokesperson. She is also a distinguished adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Ms. McFarland recently spoke with editor Christopher Prawdzik about her career and discussed her up-close perspectives on the military, including the Reserve Component, the Pentagon, current threats, and national security.
Q: You served in the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, and in recent years you’ve had a strong focus on foreign policy and national security. What got you back to this? What directed you to focus on these issues in recent years?
A: Well, I’d been in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations. During the Carter administration I went to graduate school at Oxford and MIT. And then in the middle 1980s, we were on track to winning the Cold War, so for me as a Cold Warrior, my fight was done. I also coincidentally got married, moved to New York, and my husband and I have raised five kids, so I was in retirement. I was living the good life; I was a stay-at-home mom.
And then September 11 happened. I was downtown in Lower Manhattan the day that it happened and saw the towers come down. We lost close friends and children of friends and, for me, I thought that maybe I should get back and involved. But the real impetus came from my daughter, who was in high school at the time, and she said, “Mom, I’m going to go fight for my country; I want to go to the Naval Academy,” which she did. And she said, “What are you going to do? Are you just going to keep having lunch with your girlfriends, being a stay-at-home mom, or are you getting back into the fight?”
She inspired me. I got back in the fight. So, after September 11, I did some consulting, I did some things for then– Secretary of State Colin Powell, I ran for the United States Senate in 2006 from New York—Republican candidate— unsuccessfully. And then I have continued to write about, talk about national security issues. And three years ago, I became the FOX News national security analyst.
Q: Looking back at your career, you served in multiple positions in the Department of Defense during the Reagan Administration into 1985, following some lean years of defense spending.ROA’s executive director talks about being a Marine in the 1970s and having to yell “bang, bang” as he ran through a training exercise because of limits on ammunition. Explain, from your experience, your view of attempts to cut defense spending and how are they similar to what you may have experienced when you first arrived at the Department of Defense.
A: What happened after Vietnam—it was an unpopular war and, unfortunately, as a nation, we blamed the military.We cut the military, we claimed a peace dividend, but I think, tragically, we cut back on the pay and medical benefits of our military, particularly our wounded warriors and our veterans.So when we came into the Reagan administration—when I came into the Pentagon—we were stunned at what we saw. We had ships that couldn’t sail because there was no fuel; we had airplanes that couldn’t fly because our pilots lacked the requisite number of training hours to be qualified; for every tank we had that we could use, there was one sitting right next to it that we would cannibalize for spare parts. And the greatest tragedy was that we saw the men and women—our veterans—who were not receiving adequate [mental and physical] care.
And we even had some of our junior enlisted personnel who qualified for food stamps, because they didn’t make enough in salary, and yet these were the people who had given so much of themselves—put their lives on the line for the country—and the country forgot about them. I think it was a great tragedy for those people, but it was a great stain on the soul of America. And my concern is that we’re heading in that direction once again.
Q: Related to the proposed defense cuts, if you put everything together, they come close to a trillion dollars over 10 years. From your experience, where do such numbers come from?
A: I won’t [comment] on the administration. I have no idea how they came up with those numbers. But I do think it reflects an attitude by the administration that the military doesn’t matter. They [the administration] talk a good game but they’re not backing their words up with deeds. Te cuts that you’re talking about, the cuts that have already been made are one thing—and they’re serious cuts; I think we can live with those. But the next round of cuts, which are coming with the sequestration cuts, I think really do hit at—you’re not getting rid of fat; you’re not even getting rid of muscle; you’re starting to go after the bone. Te tragedy will be: You can’t do more with less. In fact, you do less with less.
So, if we’re going to take those cuts, we should, as a nation, understand that we’re going to give up military missions. You can’t just sort of stretch our procurement. You can’t just nip and tuck here and there on benefits or stretch out payments. You’ve got to start talking about which missions you want to give up.Now, the president’s talked about going [away] from the ability of the United States to fight on two fronts. That’s been our policy since World War II, and they’re now saying we don’t need to do that anymore. Well, what does that do? What we found in the Reagan administration—in fact in every administration Was that if you say we’re giving up a mission, or we’re going to stretch ourselves and not focus on it, that’s exactly where the threat comes.
For example, the president has said we’re going to pivot our resources and our focus to Asia. Fine. Tat means a larger, presumably—although he’s not yet given it—a larger naval budget, more ships. We’re going to pivot to a part of the world which is going to be largely air- and sea-based threats, and yet at the same time, anybody who picks up the newspaper says, “Oh my gosh, we’re headed for potential crisis in the Strait of Hormuz and the Middle East!” How can you pivot to Asia and focus your resources there and also deal with the crisis in the Middle East? So, I think it’s unrealistic to take the kind of cuts the president’s proposing without being up-front with the American people about what missions you’re willing to give up.
Q: If you can, compare and contrast utilization of the Reserve Component primarily as a strategic force during the Cold War versus its operational nature today, as it started ramping up in Desert Storm. The Bosnia peacekeeping missions were primarily National Guard in the end and then, after 9/11, we saw the heavy use of the Reserve and Guard. Is that the proper use of the Reserve Component?
A: Not at all. Te Guard and Reserve were meant to be exactly what those words say: Guard and Reserve. In homeland defense, they were meant to be used in the case of an emergency— not meant as an operational force. If the people who signed up to be Guard and Reserve thought they were going to become fulltime permanent military, they may have not done that. And, what it does, I think is, again, a dishonesty to the American people.If we’re going to get into a war where we’re going to commit American resources, American lives, let’s be up-front with the American people about what it’s going to cost—not just in dollar Signs, but in materiel and in manpower. And if you’re not willing to sell that to the American people and get people to sign up for that, what are you doing going into that conflict?
You know, Reagan had this phrase, this saying, that he was going to have a defense policy that was “peace through strength.” Now, people throw that around: “ ‘Peace through strength.’ What does that mean?” What that means, it’s not a throwaway line.It means having the strongest, most insurmountable military of any other country in the world. And guess what? Nobody picks a fight with you. You don’t have to use it; by having it, you deter anyone from picking the fight with you. That’s the kind of military we want. We don’t want a big military so we can go out and necessarily use it—you will if you need [to]—[but] you want a strong military so nobody threatens you, nobody challenges you, and in the end the world is a safer, better place because nobody’s fighting.
If the country doesn’t have the ability to protect itself and defend itself, it then becomes open season on that country— particularly a wealthy country like the United States. That’s why I think Reagan was right. Peace through strength. Have a strong military so that no country challenges it. And if any country chooses to challenge it, you have the ability to deal with those threats.
When I was in the Pentagon in the Reagan administration, I drafted a speech for my boss, Secretary of Defense [Caspar] Weinberger; it became the Weinberger principles of war. Te bottom line of it was: If the United States is going to commit forces overseas to combat, do so with the idea that you’re going to win. If you’re not prepared to do what it takes to win, don’t do it in the first place. Now, the specifics of the Weinberger doctrine: Clearly define the mission. What is it that you’re trying To achieve? And once you define the mission, prepare to have the adequate resources and manpower and materiel to achieve those objectives. Have the full support of the American people, and be up-front with them, what it’s going to take to prevail.Reassess the situation so that if any of the resources change, if you don’t have the resources to give, you should scale down your objective. And don’t let the mission creep—where the mission gets bigger and bigger.
For example, in Afghanistan, [what was] their mission initially? To defeat and destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We went in in October of 2001, and by December, they were gone.We had chased al-Qaida out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan.What we should have done at that point was follow them into Pakistan and destroy the last hundred of them and then leave Afghanistan to Afghanis. What did we do instead? We said to Pakistan, “You guys deal with al-Qaida,” and they happily took our money and didn’t deal with al-Qaida, and then we stuck around Afghanistan to build a new nation. What a mistake that was. We should have declared victory in 2001, left Afghanistan, pursued al-Qaida into Pakistan, and destroyed them.
Q: During the Cold War, there was one primary antagonist, the Soviet Union, with conflicts spread around the globe and the fight against the ideology in places such as Central America, Grenada. How different is the dynamic right now, particularly with nations such as Iran and its influence on other nations in the Middle East that might support their ideology?
A: Te differences in the Cold War—[and there were] plenty of tensions in the Cold War—but it was a defined tension. We knew who the enemy was; we knew what he looked like; we knew how he trained; we knew what uniforms he wore; we knew what weapons he had; we knew what the likely conflict and battlegrounds might be. Now it’s different and it’s much more amorphous. We don’t necessarily know who our enemy is; we don’t know what their training manuals are; we don’t Know how they would attack. We know that they’re willing to attack civilian targets, and, in fact, they prefer civilian targets.So, in a lot of ways, it’s more difficult. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t remain vigilant and you don’t provide the resources for it just because it’s a more complicated threat.
Q: Going back to reservists in the military, they’ve had to keep a close eye on where the next conflict might be, particularly with the high level of deployments. From your perspective, where are these hot spots right now and can you quantify the threats?
A: They’re not all in the same neighborhood. Look at the world today. Te immediate hot spot is probably Iran and the Strait of Hormuz. Iran is trying to get nuclear weapons, and it’s trying to control the region from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, giving it control over choke points of the world’s oil resources and oil flows. That’s an immediate crisis; that could happen next week.
There’s another crisis at the other side of the world, which is in the Korean peninsula, where the North Koreans are developing nuclear weapons, nuclear missiles. And the North Koreans have become more belligerent—at least their rhetoric has become more belligerent of late. Te growing future threat is coming from, not conflict, as much as two great powers bumping up against each other in the South Pacific and the free flow of trade.
Now, on top of those, the greatest threat to America’s national security is our economy. If we don’t get our budget under control, if we don’t once again become a pro-growth country and have economic growth, all of these other things— whether it’s Reserve or active force, Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard—those are all collateral damage if you have a United States economy that goes on to ruin.
Q: Looking into the future, looking at asymmetric threats on the ground, or budgetary talk about the cyber threat.
A: When we talk about threats, we tend to think of countries and regions in the world—geographic regions— but I do think that the future is going to be not countries as much as subnational groups that may be proxies for certain countries, that may get their funding from countries. But … they don’t have a home address on them, so you can’t say that This terrorist group is coming directly from the government of “x.” And the second thing is going to be cyber threats. And for the most part, we don’t know where the cyber threats could come [from]. You could have a scenario whereby there are cyber attacks on the United States. You’re not even sure how to protect, how to respond, or to whom to respond.
The problem I have with the whole cyber area, if you look at the cyber command that the Pentagon stood up a year and a half ago, it protects and defends offensive and defensive capabilities for the United States military, for the United States government, and for defense contractors. But perhaps the greater threat to our survival as a nation comes from our civilian infrastructure. What happens if the electric grid goes off? We don’t have any electricity in America. What happens if the entire banking system gets hacked into so nobody knows how you deal with any of the economic and commercial issues we have? And that’s an area where I don’t feel we have focused enough as a nation to protect our private sector.
Q: This is a wide-ranging discussion. Is there another topic you’d like to address?
A: From the geostrategic [perspective], a really important issue: Since the industrial revolution, energy has been the Thing countries have fought over, gone to war over, and gotten rich over. Te countries that have had energy resources—oil, natural gas—have been wealthy beyond imagination. Look at the Middle East; look at Russia’s oil and natural gas exports.The countries, which haven’t had it have been willing to go to war for it. World War II, Pearl Harbor was in large part an attack because the Japanese wanted access to oil. If you look at the last 10, 15 years in the United States, other than terrorism, what have we fought over? We’ve fought over in the Middle East. We’ve been sort of like Al Pacino in Te Godfather. Every time we try to get out of the Middle East, we get sucked back into it because it’s a source of energy for us.
Now, every president I’ve worked for—and going back to President Richard Nixon—would have given his right arm to have cheap, abundant, and secure energy for the United States.Every president has tried to get it. Some have gone to war for it; some, like [President Jimmy] Carter developed synthetic fuels, [President] Obama’s tried green energy. But at the end of the day, it’s cheap, abundant, secure energy, and now, providence has smiled on America once again. We have realized we have two things that have happened in the last three years: We’ve developed our technology to look deep underground and deep inside the ocean for energy resources. And when we’ve looked, we’ve found we have abundant supplies—probably the most abundant supplies of any region in the world, hundreds of years of oil and natural gas.
Secondly, we live developed the technology to extract it from the oceans and deep underground, cheaply and safely, and yet every American president would have dreamed of that and never had the opportunity. This president has the opportunity but won¡¦t exploit it and won¡¦t let us get it out of the ground, because once we become energy independent we have cheap, secure, and abundant resources then all the conflicts that we¡¦ve been talking about, that we worry about in the world in the next decade, are no longer as important to us. Middle East, other trade routes, Russia¡¦s dominance, none of those things happen if America has cheap, abundant, secure energy sources.