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Oman is a great friend of the United States. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has quietly provided temporary basing support and logistics for American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has been among the United States' most avid diplomatic allies in the region. He rules in a liberal fashion. But he is an absolute dictator.

Morocco, like Oman, has always been among America's most dependable friends in the Middle East. King Mohamed VI has been moving in the direction of a constitutional monarchy. But Morocco remains stable and dependable precisely because power ultimately rests with the monarch; thorough democracy could undo the country.

America's worst strategic nightmares in the Arab world would be the toppling of the regimes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- two royal dictatorships, and in Saudi Arabia's case, an illiberal one at that. The Saudi royal family is probably the worst group of people a liberal American could imagine running that country, except for any other group in Riyadh that might replace it. In other words, there is no choice here. Again, we have to work with the material at hand. And again, let's be honest, the Islamic State is ultimately dangerous not only because it threatens a very unstable, illiberal democracy in Iraq, but also because it threatens more useful nearby autocracies whose policies are often convenient to the West.

In all of this, those who promote democracy in the Middle East with the intensity of an ideology will say over and over again, But what about Tunisia? Tunisia is a democracy, and it is pro-Western. True. But the very phrase, "But what about...," in the singular, indicates that Tunisia is the exception that proves the rule. Tunisia's democracy, moreover, is unstable. Tunisia's borders have been insecure and its hinterlands in places have been close to ungovernable since the toppling of its dictatorship in early 2011. Tunisia's democracy is a close-run affair, in other words. And Tunisia has the advantage of being a real place, an age-old cluster of civilization, without sectarian or ethnic differences and not divided internally by mountains. Because it is not geographically and historically artificial, Tunisia is not plagued by the challenges that have made Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya chaotic and largely ungovernable.

But isn't it autocracy, too, that has led to such chaos? Yes, but that does not necessarily mean that democracy is viable in the current circumstances. To say that there is no other choice but democracy is to assume there is an immediate solution to every problem, whereas there may not be.

The Israelis know all of this. Therefore, nothing of what I say is shocking or even surprising to them. Indeed, over the decades they have embraced Arab autocrats through back channels. The Israelis have actually feared popular upheavals in the Arab world, aware that Arab autocrats are more likely to be less anti-Western and less anti-Israel than the man in the street. The fight for sheer physical survival is clarifying and dissipates illusions.

American illusions are illusions in the short term, though, not necessarily in the long term. Over the span of the decades, Arab societies may yet make the tumultuous transition from autocracy to some form of truly representative government. The very fact that Iraq's outgoing prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has been removed from power in a legal process without bloodshed in Baghdad is a sign of some hope. But foreign policy, while it requires an eye on long-term historical transitions, has to be practical about the here and now. And that requires candor among officials themselves and candor in how they explain things to the American people.