U.S. Military and Defense Spending: An Interview with Dr. Alma Keshavarz

If we wish to keep up with challenges in Iran, Afghanistan, and China, our foreign funding must be re-examined.

The Triple Helix is Carnegie Mellon’s nonpartisan public policy review aiming to promote the interdisciplinary nature of science, politics, and society. Follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn!

Sam Abodo is from New York City and is the President of The Triple Helix. He is a sophomore studying International Relations with a minor in cybersecurity. His interests lie in foreign intervention, authoritarianism, Africa policy. Outside of classes, he enjoys biking and playing soccer.

Kevin Fang is an Editor-In-Chief of The Triple Helix. He grew up in the Bay Area and is a freshman studying at the Tepper School of Business with an additional major in Computer Science. Topics he writes about include blockchain, diplomacy, and fiscal policy.

Kyle Robertson is an Editor-In-Chief of the Triple Helix. He is a sophomore studying International Relations and Politics with a minor in International Conflict and Cybersecurity. His interests include United States foreign policy and Middle East affairs.

Kevin Fang: Just to start off broadly, what are your thoughts on the current state of US defense spending?

Dr. Keshavarz: It’s a tricky question because you’re going to get rapid responses from both sides of the aisle. The budget for the fiscal year 2022 right now has the Pentagon getting something like $715 billion. You’ll have one side of the aisle saying it’s not enough and the other side of the aisle saying it’s more than the Trump administration, when actually it’s less than last year, accounting for inflation. What was missing in terms of whether we’re spending enough or not enough is that it’s not about the full number but about the breakdown of that number. Putting more money in the State Department means more diplomacy, which means less money for the military budget. But what we have now in the Biden administration with the current Defense budget is the rational assumption that we’re funding the State Department. So, it’s a small bump [in the increase for the defense budget], but the White House proposed an increased limit for the State Department.

Additionally, it’s worth considering that one or one and half or so, billion, I’ve read, is going towards climate change. Climate efforts should not be discounted. It’s an important charge, but my point is, are we at least increasing elsewhere in defense to maintain or improve while diplomacy is center stage, as the Biden admin is trying to do. With regards to our competitors, we have an increasingly aggressive China and a dangerous situation in the South China Sea with Taiwan. You also have Russia who recently posted a substantial military presence on Ukraine’s border. A lot remains a question mark right now in the Middle East, but the White House has signaled that it is considering lifting key economic sanctions on Iran’s economy for the sake of a new nuclear deal.

We’re not spending enough on the whole in terms of modernizing and targeting priorities, especially our naval power given critical strategic threats, particularly in China. The Navy is focused on readiness capabilities based on the recent posture that they released. So, we’re focused more on deterrence. To better understand the budget, it’s important to read reviews on what is being allocated where and what can be known about how the money will be used.

Graph from Peter G. Peterson Foundation showing world defense spending.

Sam Abodo: You mentioned there is a greater focus on State Department allocations rather than DoD spending as a whole. Given Biden’s background as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, for example, will we see more foreign spending on these kinds of programs?

Dr. Keshavarz: For any president that comes in, you have to know the President’s background. You can take a lot away from their rhetoric, understanding what they’re saying during speeches, both as a candidate and as a president. As you pointed out Sam, he was Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. And so you’re going to have maybe an understanding that this President is going to be more diplomatic. We already know that there was a huge disparity between Biden’s rhetoric versus President Trump’s. You hear a lot of Biden’s rhetoric in terms of bringing American diplomacy back. So, even though the criticism was still there, the president probably would have wanted to focus more on defense. There were times when Vice President Biden broke with President Obama on certain issues. So even kind of seeing that foreshadowing there that should indicate that President Biden may have more of a diplomatic bent than more of a military or defense bent.

Sam Abodo: The major issue with Afghanistan withdrawal from what I’ve observed is the Taliban human rights issue. How can the United States mitigate the women’s rights issue in Afghanistan? How do you feel about U.S. spending contributions since the war started?

Dr. Keshavarz: Typically, spending for women’s rights initiatives comes out of the State Department. It’s a really great effort that we hold from a diplomatic standpoint because it means we’re showing the international community what our priorities are and that the opportunity to improve women’s rights is not just at home but also in other countries. But it’s obvious when you see a lot of things coming out of Afghanistan that the Taliban don’t want to give women equal opportunity when it comes to work, education, homeownership, and other things of that nature. The State Department does a great job of carrying out the US mission with regards to women’s rights issues, among other agencies..

Kevin Fang: We’ve talked about how military spending has been shown in the media. But what’s your opinion on how nations have portrayed defense spending in foreign wars, especially the War on Terror post-9/11.

Dr. Keshavarz: Well, that question can go a number of ways. I think it depends on personal preferences. I like to read anything I can from academic or scholarly, to journalistic works that are more detailed and not limited to air time. I cover more space that way and can make better informed decisions. I seldom listen to radio shows, but it’s usually the Herd with Colin Cowherd.

Kevin Fang: Do you believe September 11 is the correct time to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan? Do you have any opinions on the administration’s decision?

Dr. Keshavarz: Yes, I do have a bit of a problem with the September 11 date. Mainly because 9/11 means something different for two different groups. 9/11 to [the United States] is a day of mourning and tragedy. It is a somber day, whereas 9/11 for insurgencies like the Taliban or for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda means something different. If [the Biden Administration] wants to withdraw on a certain date, by all means, withdraw from your certain date. That’s the President’s prerogative to do so. But I don’t like the 9/11 day. If the President wants to withdraw on September 10 for instance or in August, then that’s the decision. But to actually put that date of 9/11 is an unnecessary symbolic message.

Kyle Robertson: Do you think a new administration in Iran will be willing to cooperate on a nuclear deal with the Biden administration? How will Iran’s desire to lift sanctions and recent attacks like the one on the Natanz nuclear facility that, although the United States may not have done by themselves, they were compliant in, affect this process?

Dr. Keshavarz: Let me backtrack you here for a second Kyle. News reports have cited anonymous officials as saying the U.S. had no involvement and other reports reference questions being directed to the State Department.

That being said, going back to what I said about knowing who your leaders are in any given country is very important. As it stands right now, it appears that the likely candidates that are up for the vote in Iran are more IRGC friendly and they are key stakeholders in terms of the political, military, and economic space in Iran. If you’re a president that is friendly to IRGC and IRGC-related issues, then they may be a bit more of a conservative. Not in the United States sense, but in the Iranian sense that they are more likely to be allied with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who was against having a nuclear deal to begin with and who doesn’t trust the United States.

As of today April 26, it does appear that the candidate may be IRGC friendly and may not want there to be any deal because,

if I’m Iran, I’m thinking well, despite the setback at Natanz, I’m already enriching past the nuclear deal capabilities and spinning advanced centrifuges which I was not able to do so under nuclear deal. My proxies are doing their own thing. So, why should I give all this up for a deal?

But until we see the actual candidate, it might be a different story.

Kevin Fang: Some have criticized the US for overspending on modern technology not useful in fighting asymmetrical warfare. Given programs such as the F-35 fighter jet, which is estimated to cost $1.6 trillion over its lifetime, should the U.S. cut funding on these more high end weapons programs or perhaps shift focus entirely?

Dr. Keshavarz: It’s difficult to determine if we’re going to cut something that’s high tech as we’re going in that space. Congress’ job is to consider things like authorizing SNN production for the Navy, for example, among other investment questions. And the branch appears to be shifting away from legacy platforms and towards things that are smaller than destroyers for example. It’s been reported that the Navy and the Marine Corps have been doing a lot of exercises to best determine how to either remake a fleet to generally modernize it. So, it really comes down to which branch, each of these branches thinks, hey, we need to downsize here, because we need to shift our efforts to something else now. The Navy’s thinking about going smaller, the Marine Corps may be looking for agility — the important mobility factor. Each branch makes that determination based off of the challenges and threats that they foresee in the future, and the future can be 5 years, 10 years, 25 years. Cuts will happen based on what leadership determines best in terms of readiness and capability.

An F-35B Lightning II Fifth Generation in Beaufort, South Carolina. Jeff Mitchell / Getty Images

Kevin Fang: Building off of that, in recent years, especially during the 2016 elections, there were allegations that countries such as Russia were exploiting cyber security weaknesses to launch digital attacks on America and American allies. Going forward, should we be more proactive in funding or combating such attacks?

Dr. Keshavarz: Yes this space, cyber in particular, should be prioritized. Actually it got a 10% increase in the budget I believe though you might want to check that. This is an area that needs greater attention in offensive and defensive capabilities because right now in the cyber realm, we are more in the what do we do when it happens as opposed to preventing the threat before it actually happens. So clearly there’s a little bit of a disconnect there. And obviously the biggest concern on everyone’s mind is how can and will adversaries use our tool against us — that’s a big fear. What if one day, China, number one in this category, manages to figure out what our arsenal is in cyberspace and uses it against us? And if we’re not prepared for that, we’re not ready for seeing it. Then how do we mitigate that threat? I do think the straight answer is that cyberspace desperately needs more funding in terms of research and development, and protection and modernizing and so on and so forth.

Sam Abodo: How do you feel we can combat intellectual property theft, for example from Chinese companies that take American innovation and reproduce it at faster rates?

Dr. Keshavarz: The Treasury Department does a good job of countering that by getting an eye on it even before it actually happens. The Treasury could be forced a little bit better in terms of keeping more of a watchful eye on not just the internet but intellectual property. Intellectual property can be applied to a variety of spaces. It could be, for instance, our vaccines, the patents from our vaccines development. It’s not just about copyright or digital sources. And we have again laws and regulations in place but as China intensifies and becomes more aggressive across all areas, we need to be five steps ahead, make sure that they don’t reach us. It doesn’t mean that we just need money here and there though. We need to be more targeted in where we invest, how we invest, and have a good approach to why certain things occur.

Sam Abodo: Do you have any advice for people looking to go into the field?

Dr. Keshavarz: If you want to go to academia, you want to teach. And if you do, you should definitely get your PhD. Also, focus on a specific area. If that’s the Middle East for instance, are you more about the humanitarian side, the defense technology side, it could be anything really. If you narrow down the scope of your field, you’ll have an easier time career-wise. I always suggest working in government too because it comes with a lot of benefits. And I don’t mean the pay, because no one goes into government for the big bucks. But public service gives you experience you wouldn’t get in the private sector, and above all it’s serving a duty to your country. Of course the private sector isn’t limited to consulting companies. There are think tanks too, which involves a lot of writing and research that lead to huge impacts on government policy. Ultimately, don’t discount furthering your education, regardless if you want to write books all day or work in the private sector, because an advanced education opens up the door to many possibilities.

This interview was recorded on April 26th, 2021. Dr. Keshavarz’s last day with Carnegie Mellon was on May 7th, after which she returned to a career in government. The Triple Helix sincerely thanks Dr. Alma Keshavarz for giving us her time for our very first interview. You can check out her writings on national security and foreign affairs for Small Wars Journal here.

**The views of the interviewers and Dr. Alma Keshavarz do not necessarily reflect the views of The Triple Helix. As well, the views of Dr. Alma Keshavarz are her own and do not reflect the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.**

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The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.