About a year ago, international relations scholar Charles Kupchan praised the Obama administration in Foreign Affairs for deemphasizing human rights and democracy in its foreign policy. "Obama is fully justified in putting the democratization agenda on the back burner and basing U.S. diplomacy toward other states on their external behavior, not their regime type. Even repressive regimes can be reliably cooperative when it comes to their conduct of foreign policy."

America’s relationship with Egypt seemed to be a paradigmatic example of how America could buy stability by selling out other people’s freedom – until the fall of Hosni Mubarak earlier this month. But as the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa should remind us, this kind of realpolitik is based on very unrealistic assumptions.

First, trying to maintain stability by propping up unpopular dictators is inherently self-defeating in the long run, as Andrew Albertson argued in conversations we had when he was director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. From Batista’s Cuba to the Shah’s Iran to Musharaff’s Pakistan, the U.S. has often allied itself with dictators to promote stability, and achieved precisely the opposite. The problem in these cases, according to Albertson, was that the U.S. focused only on security issues, without putting pressure on the regimes to reform politically.

By denying their citizens opportunities for political participation, our authoritarian allies ultimately sowed the seeds of future upheaval. (In some cases, such regimes even strengthen the appeal of violent extremists, including terrorists.) Siding with unpopular dictators has also frequently fueled anti-Americanism, as these examples underscore. In Egypt and Tunisia, virulently anti-Western governments are unlikely to arise. But for decades the U.S. relied heavily on its ties to Mubarak to pursue its goals in the Middle East, rather than cultivate a relationship with the Egyptian people. That leaves American influence in the region in an uncertain position now.

Another myth has provided comfort to U.S. officials who advocate coddling dictators: that non-Western cultures – particularly Arab and Muslim societies – don’t really want democracy anyway. Western academics like Samuel Huntington and John Gray have asserted that liberal democracy is an intrinsically Western concept, at odds with the values of non-Western societies. (As Amartya Sen points out, this idea is also quite popular with many dictators.) The durability of authoritarianism in the Arab world seemed to support this view, as global waves of democratization over the decades passed the region by.

But the protests and revolts in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and (as of Sunday) Oman belie these stereotypes. People in the Middle East do want a voice in how they are governed. That fact should not have been a surprise. A decade ago, the World Values Survey found that in every major region of the world, more than 80% of citizens agreed with the statement: “Democracy may have its problems, but it’s better than any other form of government.” In the six Muslim Middle Eastern countries surveyed, 88% agreed, the same percentage as in Latin America and Eastern Europe, and only 4% less than in Western countries.

Of course there is incredible diversity in the fundamental values of different societies, including their political values. (Of course individual values are also diverse within every society, too, making attempts to divide people neatly into civilizational categories simplistic.) But democratic institutions and the protection of basic freedoms are the best means of empowering people to chart their own futures, as individuals and communities, according to the goals they value.

Democratic revolutions have to be driven, as the current uprisings have been, by internal forces. But the U.S. should dramatically rethink its self-serving rationales for propping up compliant dictators.