The trial in Kabul of Abdul Rahman - an Afghan who faced possible death for converting from Islam to Christianity - should jolt any illusions about the ease of bringing democracy to Afghanistan or the Middle East.
The promotion of "freedom around the globe" has become a centerpiece of administration foreign policy. The new U.S. national security strategy touts the creation of "effective democracies" as the key to undercutting terrorism.
Having watched many Muslim countries languish under authoritarian regimes for years, I would love to see Mideast democracies bloom. Arab democrats deserve our support.
But the idea that Afghan, Arab or Iranian democracies will undercut the terrorists' appeal anytime soon is a delusion. Such misconceptions left us unprepared for postwar Iraq; now they undermine the antiterror struggle. The Kabul trial shows the need to abandon such exaggerated hopes.
Afghanistan is a deeply conservative Muslim country with a tradition of consultative councils, at which the king discussed issues with tribal and religious leaders. But liberal, secular democratic values as we know them are foreign to most people there.
The 2004 Afghan constitution leaves certain crimes to the jurisdiction of religious courts, including the sharia law crime of converting from Islam. On this issue, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is squeezed between his Western backers and the conservative Afghan clergy, whose support he needs.
President Bush was justly appalled when he heard of the trial and is getting pressured on the case by his Christian conservative base. "They had assembly elections," he said, about Afghanistan. "We expect them to honor the universal principles of freedom."
But what if many Afghans interpret those principles very differently than we do?
The president's promotion of "universal principles" makes little allowance for local culture. It reminds me of the warning I got from a Syrian intellectual named Mohammed Shahrour, who is active in his country's tiny democratic opposition.
"Our culture is based on justice, not freedom," he said. "Justice can be provided by a dictator, and a 'just dictator' is common in our culture." Arab regimes, he added, feel free to arrest thousands but would be wary of trampling on orthodox Muslim religious rights. "The concept of 'human rights,'" he said, "is barely beginning to penetrate" the region.
Perhaps it's time someone reminded the White House that the Mideast and Afghanistan aren't in Eastern Europe, where authoritarian regimes tumbled one after another after the Berlin Wall fell. A false comparison with the demise of communism, promoted by neocons and ex-Soviet dissidents like Natan Sharansky, underlies the president's expectations in the Middle East.
"The way the Cold War ended shaped the thinking of (pro-Bush, neoconservative) supporters of the Iraq war," writes Frances Fukuyama in a much discussed essay in the New York Times magazine. "It seemed to have created the expectation that all totalitarian regimes were hollow at the core and would topple with a small push." Such illusions, says Fukuyama, were a main reason why the Bush team failed to plan adequately for Iraq after Saddam.
Eastern Europeans, however, are Christian and were eager to be part of the West from which they were severed by Soviet domination. The relationship of the Middle East to the West is far more fraught. Memories of colonialism, along with Arab nationalism and religious differences, create ambivalence about the very idea of Western democracy.
Fukuyama's thinking is particularly interesting because he was himself a noted neoconservative intellectual, whose "end of history" theory was cited by Bush supporters as proof that liberal democracy was destined to triumph. He now says his thinking was misunderstood and that the ascendancy of liberal democracy is a "long-term process of social evolution."
Neocon ideologues, he says, thought they could speed up that historical process "with the right application of power and will." But factors of culture, religion and geography could not be so easily moved.
Thus in Lebanon, Egypt, the Palestinian territories - and Iraq - the primary beneficiaries of elections have been Islamic religious parties. Most (with some Iraqi exceptions) are anti-American in outlook; Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas are on the U.S. terrorist list.
None of this means we should abandon support for Arab or Afghan democrats. Far from it. But one can't base a policy on the hope our values will soon triumph.
Foreign policy - and the anti-terror struggle - can't be based on the illusion that Afghans and Iraqis are Poles and Czechs. The trial of Abdul Rahman should debunk that analogy once and for all.