The Obama Administration has come a long way in its human rights and democracy policy, having initially backed off commenting on elections  in a number of repressive countries, most strikingly the fraudulent Iranian elections in 2009, when US criticism focused on lack of freedom of expression and assembly. In her statements on the Tunisian crisis Secretary of State Clinton early called for free and fair elections (though, to be sure,  only after Ben Ali had fled the country). Support for elections in countries living under repression has been put down by a large pool of experts and government officials alike as unrealistic, as an open door for extremists or chaos, as insensitive western imperialism, as  against US interests and as premature, unless variously defined benchmarks (usually per capita income) are met. However it is Clinton, with her call for free and fair elections, who is adopting a realist school of thought.  Autocrats are usefully “stable partners” for the US until suddenly the mask drops and they aren’t.  It is no longer good strategy to think supporting dictatorships is, at the very least, better than the alternatives. People want democracy – and uncorrupt legitimate government. There are good strategies available to deal with risks of Islamist extremist participants in elections, and with chaos. For one thing, the international community can support a  norm that political parties participating in elections commit to the democratic process,  the principle of periodic fee and fair elections, and can be sanctioned if  they renege on these commitments.  International observation of elections should be accepted universally as another norm (the European Union, among others, sends observers to American elections).   Clinton has adapted just the right tone. We need to forge ahead positively and support the Tunisians and their aspirations.

Note: The Washington Post erred in its January 23 editorial on Tunisia in denying that the Administration had called for free and fair elections. Secretary Clinton called for free and fair elections in a Statement January 14 which can be found on the State Department’s web site.