The Problem of the Friendly Tyrant
We should have insisted that the shah liberalize Iran. Yes, I know he did some of it, and I know that Iran was -- by orders of magnitude -- the most liberal and open society in the Muslim Middle East. But he stopped that process in its tracks, thereby provoking the insurrection that produced the Islamic Revolution.
We should have insisted that Mubarak liberalize Egypt, and every now and then an American president or secretary of state said so, but then we backed off. Now we have a serious crisis with no "good" solution. What to do?
I think the answer is obvious: we have to stick with Mubarak, all the way down if he is indeed going down. We can talk about reform as much as we wish, but it's as crazy to try to institute reform in the middle of an insurrection as it is to raise taxes in the middle of a depression. But we have to say -- above all, privately -- that we're with him, and that while we want serious change in the future we will not abandon him.
That is the right policy, even if Mubarak goes down. If we do that, we can say to his successors: "We were loyal to him because he was a good ally, and we do not abandon loyal allies. If you are good allies, we will be loyal to you too, even at your darkest hour."
If we bail, then both our other allies and Mubarak's successors will know that America is not loyal, cannot be relied upon, and thus that it is a mistake to cater to the Americans' wishes (about democracy, for example).
So, as history unfolds through paradoxes, we have identified another one: if you really want to advance democracy, it will sometimes be necessary to stand foursquare behind a dictator.
If we had pursued our national mission for the past many decades, we might have avoided the necessity of doing this unpleasant thing. But here we are. If we jump ship now, as it seems we are, it is odds-on to make things worse.