I've always argued to my friends at the State Department that this kind of thinking can be catastrophic in the long run. Consider, for example, how many of the national security threats that the United States has faced in the last decade stem from the misrule of two dictators with whom Washington worked in the 1980s -- Saddam Hussein and, arguably to a larger extent, Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan. Somewhere in the State Department archives, there is probably a cable from Islamabad circa 1980, incisively analyzing Zia's political repression, his Islamization of Pakistani society, and his creation of proxy militant groups, projecting the implications for U.S. interests, yet rationalizing public silence to maintain American influence.
In the short term, there are often tradeoffs between public criticism of repressive allies and working with them to advance other U.S. interests. Perhaps Pakistan in the 1980s, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was such a case -- though one could just as easily argue that the billions of dollars the U.S. provided Zia should have given Washington leverage to improve his domestic policies. In such cases, where U.S. interests truly do require "dialing back" public pressure, U.S. diplomats should at least acknowledge the pragmatic reasons for counseling quiet persuasion rather than pretending it is always the best way to influence dictators.
In reality, no amount of "high-level private candor" was going to convince Ben Ali of Tunisia that allowing free speech or free elections was in his interest, because it plainly wasn't (even if it was very much in the interest of Tunisia as a whole) -- and the same is true for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and others like him. Authoritarian rulers do not ease repression or agree to checks on their powers because foreign officials convince them it is a good idea in a private meeting. Such rulers make political concessions when it is necessary to retain the support of key actors in their societies -- from the general population to the security services to economic and political elites.
But depending on the circumstances, public, external pressure really can influence the calculations of these domestic actors. It can help delegitimize rulers in the eyes of their people; it can cause elites to question whether tying themselves to their leader's policies serves their interests; it can encourage and amplify domestic voices calling for change. Precisely because it can be consequential, it is hard to bring such pressure to bear without causing diplomatic friction. The alternative, however, is to be inconsequential.
There is another reason why many American diplomats hesitate to challenge authoritarian governments in public: They believe that those governments will resist reform no matter what the United States says or does. I've had many conversations with State Department officials in which they have said something like: "Sure, our diplomatic engagement with Country X won't make it better on human rights. But neither will sanctions or public criticism or anything else." This cynicism is understandable. History may teach us that authoritarian regimes project a forced (and therefore false) stability -- that over a 20 or 30 year time frame, most will experience dramatic political upheaval. But at any given moment, the prospects for real human rights progress in places like Uzbekistan, China, or Iran are very small.
If you were a State Department official and Hillary Clinton asked you every day: "What will the weather be like tomorrow?" and gave you points that you could cash in for career advancement every time you got the answer right, the safest strategy would be to answer that the weather tomorrow will be the same as the weather today. Likewise, on any given Sunday, the safest approach to engaging most of the world's dictatorships is to assume that they will be governed in exactly the same way on Monday, and base policy on that assumption. Why risk diplomatic relationships -- and one's own reputation as a prognosticator -- on strategies for promoting change that are not likely to work before you move on to your next diplomatic post?