Byman supports military drone use
Critics often argue that drones are immoral, ineffective and often backfire, but Byman said this criticism may be misplaced.
"Many of the arguments against drones are more accurately described as criticisms of America's counterterrorism policies," he said.
In the 1990s, the U.S. relied on cruise missiles and conventional aerial warfare to attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, requiring significant time to reach targets and often resulting in collateral damage. Drones are able to deliver more precise strikes, he said.
"Pre-9/11 groups, like al-Qaida, spent most of their time on the offense, planning attacks because they had a degree of safety," Byman said. "Post 9/11, for a variety of reasons, they are playing defense, and the amount of time that they have to plan large scale sophisticated attacks is greatly reduced."
The Obama administration credits the drone program for preventing al-Qaida's terrorist efforts and continues to support a drone campaign. Given that drones have become a key part of the Obama administration's counterterrorism platform, increased scrutiny is appropriate, Byman said.
One concern surrounding drones is the ambiguous definition of a militant. The administration's use of signature strikes, based on profiles of suspected combatants, is of particular concern to critics.
Critics also argue that drone use angers allied governments, but these arguments are "two-faced," considering strikes are conducted with the consent of allied governments and only in allied countries that cannot do so themselves, Byman said.
"One of the things to remember is that we only use drone attacks with friends," Byman said. "We are acting both for our interest and for the counterinsurgency interest of our allies whether it is in Yemen, Pakistan or elsewhere. We don't drone enemies."
Byman predicted that tension would escalate significantly if the U.S. used drones against countries like Iran, which is not an ally of the United States.
The anger directed toward the American drone program overseas is a pretext for problems that are deeply rooted within U.S. foreign policy, Byman said.
Generally, drone use critics focus on government power, questioning the government's right to target Americans rather than the mechanism itself.
Byman indicated that many of the main arguments against using drones, including Americans being killed without trial, the extent of presidential power and what defines imminent danger are in fact legal questions. The administration should take an aggressive approach to outlining the legal parameters of drone technology to set an example for other countries that are considering implementing drones in their security programs, Byman said.
Sahil Joshi '13, who attended the event, said Byman provided a concise overview of the debate surrounding drone use.
"I'm still not 100 percent sure either way," he said. "Drones do violate some of the norms that have been built up over time. However, in terms of war, a lot of those norms have been torn down, so drones may become more accepted over time."
Byman is the research director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute and recently published "A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism." The lecture, titled "Drones and the War on Terror," was part of a series of lectures sponsored by the Dickey Center for International Understanding.