Democracy’s Blameless Leaders

From Dresden to Abu Ghraib, How Leaders Evade Accountability for Abuse, Atrocity, and Killing

256 pages

March, 2012

ISBN: 9780814761441



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Neil James Mitchell is Professor of International Relations in the School of Public Policy at University College London and author of Agents of Atrocity: Leaders, Followers, and the Violation of Human Rights in Civil War.

All books by Neil James Mitchell

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 for abuse and atrocity, using a range of well-known techniques including denial, delay, diversion, and delegation to pass blame for abuse and atrocities to the lowest plausible level. 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.


  • "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

  • “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

  • “Neil Mitchell’s provocative new book, Democracy’s Blameless Leaders, should be must reading for those concerned about the operation of democracy and the accountability of its leaders.In a series of probing case analyses of human right atrocities committed by those from the United States, Britain, and Israel over the decades, Mitchell deftly shows how leaders often escape accountability for such actions.To the extent that accountability occurs, the “fall guy,” an individual at a lower level of responsibility, not the leaders, takes the blame.His conclusions are equally revealing—why democratic polities, whether parliamentary or presidential systems, often find it difficult hold their leaders more accountable for such actions.”

    —James M. McCormick, author of American Foreign Policy and Process

  • "Mitchell provides an interesting typology of the various techniques that leaders use to deflect blame, and he writes with a certain acerbic flair. "

    Washington Post

  • "Highly recommended for lower-division undergraduates and above."


  • "Mitchell's incisive and compelling account of how atrocities are handled by 'working' democracies provides a promising foundation for how stronger and more efficient systems of accountability might be implemented."

    —Kimberly A. Seida, International Journal of Comparative Sociology