Veto Players, Drone Policy, and the Policy Implications of Oversight

The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed in 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, has been employed by the Obama Administration as a legal basis for the unbridled use of Predator drones in covert military operations. Congressional oversight is currently limited to reviews of strikes after-the-fact by the U.S. House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence. The latter, led by California Senator Diane Feinstein, holds 28 monthly meetings in which members watch video of each strike, and review the legal and moral justifications for their use. Due to the nature of the material, however, the discussions and findings of the committee are largely classified. Such a feeble level of supervision, in addition to the internalization of the decision process for picking targets, has led many to consider the use of drones as an unwarranted expansion of Executive power.

What, then, is the alternative? Despite calls for greater congressional oversight, restricting the use of drones or involving additional actors into the decision making process risks undermining their strategic advantage: the quick and clandestine use of force/surveillance in a number of geographic hotspots. This is what I call the ‘drone dilemma:’ greater plurality in the decision-making process must inevitably come at the cost of strategic advantage. This paper will explore the disadvantages of both extremes through an adaption of Professor George Tsebelis’ concept of Veto Players, defined as “political actor[s] who may decline a change to the status quo.” The essential lesson of his theory is a simple one: the more actors in a decision-making process, the harder it becomes to change the status quo (i.e. create policy change). The context of Tsebelis’ research, however, is comparative political institutions, and thus the details of his theory have complicated and profound implications for the ability of different regimes (parliamentary versus presidential, simple majority versus supermajority) to create and change policy. Below is a Euclidean graph representing three individual veto players:


George Tsebelis. “Individual Veto Players.” Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002, p. 22.

A, B and C have individual indifference curves. SQ1 and SQ2, the points at which all three indifference curves intersect, represent ‘status quo,’ and each player will prefer anything inside their indifference curves to the status quo, or current policy. The Winset (W(SQ)) is the set of outcomes that can defeat the status quo if unanimous consent is required.  Alternatively, the Core, in this case the unanimity core, is the set of points minus the Winset that cannot be defeated; this is Pareto efficiency (all three parties are satisfied, or at least to the point in which change would not be approved unanimously). The size of the Winset represents policy stability (a larger Winset would indicate less stability, and thus a greater chance of change).*

My paper will apply this theory to represent various scenarios in which more or less actors are implemented into the decision process of drone strikes. In doing so, I hope to explore not just the constitutional and moral implications of unilateral Executive control, but also the effect of change on the efficacy of security policy.


Christopher Weyant. The New Yorker, 10 Sept. 2012, p. 84.

*The position of points, size of indifference curves, and shape of the core vary depending on regime-type. Also note that this simplified version assumes actors know their preferences; if they don’t, or if we were to include transaction costs into the decision-making process, it becomes much more complicated.

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3 Responses to Veto Players, Drone Policy, and the Policy Implications of Oversight

  1. leonard.horne says:

    Mandatory note: “…limited to reviews of strikes after-the-fact by the U.S. House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence. The later [I believe here you meant to say, “the latter”), led by California Senator Diane Feinstein…”

    Wow, this is a very esoteric and theoretical approach that I am sure will yield very pratical information about how we might go about revising the process of decision making in such a way that we maintain discretion, strategic advantage and efficiency, while putting in place the necessary checks that prevent overreaches in executive power as we arguably have seen with the relentless use of drones.

    I can’t wait to see how elegantly you manage to apply the Veto Players theory to the “drone dilemma” (great title for that concept by the way).

    • mkellerman says:

      Good catch on the typo, thanks. I’ll probably be using Euclidean graphs as a representation of different scenarios, but certainly won’t be calculating the indifference curves themselves (this would be far beyond the scope of 15 pages!).

  2. Pingback: The Drone Dilemma: Veto Player, Moral Hazard and Decision-Making | Presidential Fellows Program Blog

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