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Supporting democratic transitions in Arab and North African nations is "a strategic necessity" for the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday.
"We will not return to the false choice between freedom and stability. And we will not pull back our support for emerging democracies when the going gets tough," Clinton told a US think tank.
"That would be a costly strategic mistake that would undermine both our interests and our values."
Weeks before the revolution in Egypt against longtime leader Hosni Mubarak broke out, Clinton said she had warned Arab leaders at a meeting in Doha that the "region's foundations were sinking into the sand.
"It was clear even then that the status quo was unsustainable. That refusal to change was itself becoming a threat to stability," Clinton told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"So for the United States, supporting democratic transitions is not a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity."
But she cautioned that "achieving genuine democracy and broad-based growth will be a long and difficult process.
"There will be setbacks along the way. Times when some will surely ask if it was all worth it. But going back to the way things were in December 2010 isn't just undesirable, it is impossible."
Last month's attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, "revealed strains of extremism that threaten these nations, as well as the broader region and the United States," the US top diplomat added.
"On the other hand, we've seen actions that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago: Democratically-elected leaders and free people in Arab countries standing up for a peaceful, pluralist future.
"It is way too soon to say how these transitions will play out. But what's not in doubt is that America has a big stake in the outcome."