In response to a comment, I think that one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes we’ve made over the years is in not fostering the transition from autocracy to democracy properly in some of the countries we’ve supported over the years. That transition is like farming rather than flipping a switch or winning the lottery, something that happens in a single, wonderful stroke.
In Russia, Iraq, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and even Libya we should have been offering incentives, both in the forms of carrots and sticks, for the autocratic governments to allow the formation of institutions that will, ultimately, lead to liberal democracies. Things like a free press, the rule of law, a robust system of civil law that products the rights of minorities and individuals, and an independent judiciary.
That’s the work of decades, even generations, and I think it’s likely we don’t have the patience for that kind of stewardship. If that’s the case we should prefer stability. Civil wars or chaos in which an order of magnitude more people are killed than the autocrats would have done do not work in our favor.
In the specific case of Egypt, our two best alternatives were either starting decades ago and fostering the development of the sorts of institutions mentioned above or else supporting Mubarak to the hilt. At least we would have had one friend in Egypt.