Domestic Institutions—Enabling Abuse?
The second main variant of regime-type arguments centers on democracies' institutional rather than norms-based characteristics. The logic focuses on the tendency for democratic leaders to be held more accountable by their publics than leaders of other regime types. War remains one of the most salient measures of a government's competence, and the tenure of democratic leaders may be especially
sensitive to the rising costs of war and the prospects for defeat.152 Although governments may benefit from an initial rally-round-the-flag effect from the opening use of force, public support often declines precipitously as the duration of the war lengthens and casualties mount.153 The greater electoral vulnerability of democratic governments leads to the contention that democracies are both more selective in the wars they initiate and more likely to fight harder and more effectively once war begins.154
Fighting “hard" can refer to a wide range of behavior, such as devoting greater resources and energy to the war effort.155 However, a more direct implication is that this increased enthusiasm may also translate into more violent conduct on the battlefield. The stringent demands placed upon democracies not only to win but also to minimize their own casualties might actually make them more likely to fight in nastier ways than nondemocratic belligerents.156 Democracies have indeed been shown to be more willing in many situations to target civilians during war, and the motives behind this democratic bent toward atrocity are often rooted in domestic institutional pressures.157 For democracies, strategies relying on extreme forms of violence may be part of an attempt to coerce the other side into giving up because of the greater human toll wrought by targeting noncombatants, or as a way to shift the risks and costs of fighting from their own troops and onto civilians from the opposing side. It follows that a similar logic may operate even more forcefully with enemy combatants, since they pose a greater threat to the belligerent's own citizens and soldiers. Institutional strains on democracies to win may lead them to emphasize the benefits of prisoner abuse over the costs, thus making them more prone toward mistreating captives under their control.