Department of Political Science


Neil Mitchell: Democracy's Blameless Leaders

25 April 2012

Democracy's Blameless Leaders book cover

From the American and British counter-insurgency in Iraq to the bombing of Dresden and the Amristar Massacre in India, civilians are often abused and killed when they are caught in the cross-fire of wars and other conflicts. In Democracy’s Blameless Leaders, Neil Mitchell examines how leaders in democracies manage the blame for the abuse and the killing of civilians, arguing that politicians are likely to react in a self-interested and opportunistic way and seek to deny and evade accountability.

Using empirical evidence from well-known cases of abuse and atrocity committed by the security forces of established, liberal democracies, Mitchell shows that self-interested political leaders will attempt to evade accountability using a range of well-known techniques including denial, delay, diversion, and delegation to avoid or pass on blame. Mitchell argues that, despite the conventional wisdom that accountability is a ‘central feature’ of democracies, it is only a rare and courageous leader who acts differently, exposing the limits of accountability in democratic societies. As democracies remain embroiled in armed conflicts, and continue to try to come to grips with past atrocities, Democracy’s Blameless Leaders provides a timely analysis of why these events occur, why leaders behave as they do, and how a more accountable system might be developed.

“Using interesting and readable case examples, Mitchell argues that democratic leaders are not held accountable by their citizens for the human rights atrocities they permit in times of conflict. If blame is assigned, it goes to low-level soldiers, police, and prison guards, and even their punishments are usually insufficient. To understand why this is so and what can be done about it, read this book.”

David Cingranelli, co-author of Human Rights and Structural Adjustment

“Although accountability lies at the heart of the ideal of democracy, leaders rarely accept blame for human rights violations. The Bush administration famously dismissed the abuses at Abu Ghraib as a result of ‘a few bad apples,’ deflecting blame to the individual soldiers involved, and denying any responsibility for the actions. This insightful book is essential reading for all scholars interested in agency and incentives in the use of violence.”

Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, author of All International Politics Is Local: The Diffusion of Conflict, Integration, and Democratization

"I highly recommend this book. Its strongest feature is the clarity of the theoretical argument made about why high officials in mature democracies will engage in self‐interested blame management that obscures accountability and devolves punishment on those at the lowest rungs of power.”

Hank Jenkins Smith, co-author of Critical Masses and Critical Choices: Evolving Public Opinion on Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, and Security.

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