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Democracy’s Blameless Leaders

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

Neil Mitchell

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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p. ix-ix

I have people to thank for help with the research and the preparation of the manuscript. What success I have had in writing a book for both a general and an academic audience I owe to Eric Prentice and his infallibly polite nudges on matters of style and usage and to the editors at New York...

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pp. xi-xii

When they meet with policy disasters, leaders in democracies are likely to behave in expedient rather than principled ways. Like most of us, they seek a positive balance of credit over blame for their actions. While we associate accountability with democracy, we have failed...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-12

The gravitational theory of accountability has one central proposition: blame falls to the bottom, to the fall guy. When things go wrong with a policy, people try to shift the blame. Those best placed to do this are those at the top. Even when there is evidence of complicity at the highest...

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2. The Theory of the Fall Guy

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pp. 13-26

Britain’s top soldier at the time of the invasion of Iraq, General Sir Mike Jackson, told the inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa, who was beaten to death by British soldiers in 2003, that “it is absolutely bedrock to the British Army’s philosophy that a commanding officer is...

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3. Evading Accountability

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pp. 27-47

When things go wrong in politics, people seek to deflect the blame. No matter how well designed a constitution, we are dealing with individuals, with power, with selfishness and human failings. There may be examples of leaders who courageously do the right thing, but one...

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4. Amritsar

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pp. 48-66

The killing of more than three hundred civilians in the city of Amritsar took ten minutes on April 13, 1919. It was a ten-minute turning point in the long relationship between Britain and India. With Gandhi’s nonviolent protests forcing the issue, Prime Minister Lloyd George’s coalition government was preparing...

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5. Dresden

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pp. 67-85

What could recommend the destruction of this city? In contrast to the massacre at Amritsar, the mass killing of civilians in Dresden and the destruction of urban and residential Germany was government policy. How could frightfulness become the policy of a government led by a man who, as secretary...

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6. Londonderry

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pp. 86-115

The story goes that the Irish Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, on a visit to the office of the British foreign secretary in 1997, was unhappy to see a portrait of the “murdering bastard” Oliver Cromwell, the seventeenth-century perpetrator of a brutal slaughter in Ireland. Apparently, Foreign Secretary...

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7. Beirut

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pp. 116-137

The killing of seven hundred or more Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut took thirty-six hours. According to the Israeli inquiry that followed, the killings were done by members of an Israeli-allied Lebanese Christian militia. These militiamen were let into the camps on the night...

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8. Baghdad

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pp. 138-160

In 2004, the U.S. secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, faced questions about the treatment of captured Iraqis. Secretary Rumsfeld was due to testify before a U.S. Senate committee about his management of what went on at Baghdad Central Correctional Facility, Abu Ghraib. It was a news story that...

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9. Baghdad to Basra

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pp. 161-187

The toughest test of a democracy’s commitment to the rule of law is whether it is willing to hold its own people to account. The American poet laureate Charles Simic says democracies fail this test: “What unites many countries in the world, both the ones that don’t give a fig about human rights and...

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10. A Tale of a Few Cities: Better Leaders, Better Institutions, or a Better Audience?

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pp. 188-207

The times when it must confront guilt are the worst of times for democracy. Submitting an accurate account and admitting responsibility for wrongdoing or for failing to control those who commit it is an option. Whether in the routine cases of unlawful killing or abuse or in the case of the notorious...


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pp. 209-239


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pp. 241-249


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pp. 251-262

About the Author

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pp. 263

E-ISBN-13: 9780814763377
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814761441
Print-ISBN-10: 0814761445

Publication Year: 2012