06/26/2012 10:43 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

Dancing With Dictators

As Egypt's political drama unfolds, there has been some discussion about whether the Obama administration has enabled the emergence of an Egypt run by the Muslim Brotherhood by failing to stand by Hosni Mubarak.

The back and forth on this point highlights a larger challenge that Washington has long encountered, namely, what to do when it becomes obvious, and with no warning, that a dictator whom it has long supported is living (politically speaking) on borrowed time.

The fact is that despite its professions of fealty to democratic principles the United States has a long history of backing unsavory regimes. When pressed on this point, American leaders are wont to invoke the many practical necessities that require them to truck with disreputable rulers and to lament that they must contend with the world that is, not the world could be.

Perhaps the dictatorial government Washington backs offers access to an important naval base (Bahrain). Perhaps it controls large amounts of a critical commodity (Saudi Arabia). Perhaps it does that and also shares a border with an adversary (the Shah of Iran, whose country abutted the Soviet Union). Perhaps it runs a vast country that commands vital sea-lanes (Indonesia under Suharto). There is never a shortage of reasons grounded in realpolitik.

Our leaders are also likely to add that the alternative to an existing government could well be worse -- even when they have made no real effort to develop one.

So long as these regimes remain stable -- largely by cowing the populace -- all seems well. Washington may make the occasional noise about the need for reform or press for the release from prison of this or that political activist or journalist; but it rarely, if ever, exerts concerted and serious pressure intended to get the government to prepare the groundwork for democracy and to enact economic reforms that better serve the poor and rein in rampant corruption.

That's because there's no urgency to push for such change: From the standpoint of the regime and Washington, things are going well when there are no protests, or at least ones the leadership can't handle. Moreover, while the regime receives American economic aid or arms (usually both), the U.S. doesn't have as much leverage as one might assume. That's because the leaders of the regime know that Washington has acquired a stake in their remaining in power and that American financial and military support stems not from charitable motives but from hard-nosed self-interest.

Resources may flow in one direction, but influence, a multifaceted and complex phenomenon with tangible and intangible elements, flows in both directions, which means that the recipients of aid wield influence of their own.

One thing that conservatives and liberals have in common is that both tend to overestimate American leaders' influence over undemocratic governments with which the United States has close and longstanding ties. The former believe Washington can save friendly regimes by standing resolutely by them when they face popular uprisings; The latter aver that the United States can democratize such governments by issuing ultimatums and applying pressure -- and well before they run into trouble.

It becomes apparent just how much more complex reality is when an authoritarian regime encounters the unexpected -- and suddenly. For example, a mass rebellion catches its leaders, U.S. intelligence agencies, and leading American experts on the country by surprise. The population turns out to be much more angry and far less fearful of imprisonment or death than Washington or the government under siege had expected. The old ways of intimidation are tried but they just don't work this time.

Moreover, the leaders of the turmoil-ridden country turn out to have feet of clay at this moment of crisis and precious little wisdom. But if an American president jumps in at this stage and urges them to enact democratic changes, both political opponents at home and other authoritarian allies will accuse him of abandoning a trusted partner and of opening a Pandora's Box.

In any event, the regime is usually beyond salvage by then, just as Mubarak was within weeks of the uprising.

At this point, American leaders seem like deer caught in headlights. The familiar dictator begins to resemble a cadaver and the strongest forces in the opposition movement are unfamiliar, not least because Washington had few contacts with them in deference to the once-strong and seemingly invincible regime. For its part, the opposition has little reason to trust the United States, which for decades supported the strongman and his inner circle, exhibiting little concern about the nasty means they used to retain power.

Think Nicaragua after Somoza, Iran after the Shah, and Pakistan's generals-turned-presidents and the persistence of this pattern is evident.

There are some lessons worth learning from this record: First, when authoritarian regimes that Washington has long supported start unraveling, there's not much that can be done to save them; they are up against powerful and unfamiliar forces that they don't even comprehend.

Second, a people who have witnessed longtime American support for the local dictator will see Washington's last minute calls for reform through cynical, even suspicious, eyes. Who can blame them?

Third, democratic processes may well bring results that American leaders don't like, but Washington can't have it both ways: It can't trumpet its commitment to democratic values and also expect to determine who gets elected. (Well it can, but it won't have much credibility or influence if it does.)

Some experts say that there should be elections following revolutions but that it's essential to carefully create the necessary circumstances and not rush forward. All haste does, they say, is create more instability or enable undemocratic forces to win. This sounds like sage advice, but think about it for a moment, and its vacuity becomes evident. How exactly do you convince a population that's energized by having at long last deposed a dictator to hold off on elections until the conditions are right? Who decides what those conditions are and when they are present in sufficient strength?

The familiar pattern I've been discussing has been evident most recently in Egypt. How long before it emerges somewhere else? Bahrain? Or even Saudi Arabia, despite the consensus among experts that the House of Saud stands on secure foundations? Perhaps they're right about the latter. But after seeing our leaders and specialists flummoxed by the Arab Spring it would be foolish to accept their assurances at face value. And even if revolution doesn't erupt in these two places, Washington will doubtless face its dictator problem again. It's just a question of when and where.

This much is certain: Even after decades of practice, Washington hasn't become much better at deciding what to do when it suddenly becomes apparent that its long waltz with a dictator is about to come to an abrupt end. Perhaps it's all a matter of whom we choose to dance with in the first place.