In Armenia in the late 1990s, I visited a very brave former Soviet Armenian dissident. He had spent years in Soviet prison and his walls were festooned with awards from western organisations devoted to supporting democracy and human rights. Indeed, I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of his commitment to Armenian democracy. But what I mainly remember is his territorial vision. He believed that Armenia should seek the annexation of the whole of eastern Turkey on the basis of ancient historical and ethnic ties.

As many examples have made clear since the Soviet Union's collapse, the Soviet dissident movement had two starkly different faces, often combined in the same person. Both were about freedom but very different kinds of freedom. The first was about freedom for the individual; the second, freedom for a particular nation.

Natan Sharansky, the Israeli government minister, has gained considerable influence over George W. Bush thanks to his heroic past as a Soviet dissident.

Mr Sharansky's book The Case for Democracy is one of the few works on the Middle East that Mr Bush has read. According to Mr Bush himself, Mr Sharansky has been a key inspiration for the US president's rhetoric of spreading democracy and freedom.

Tragically, however, Mr Sharansky's record in Israel, and Mr Bush's apparent indifference to this record, demonstrate the almost Orwellian contradictions in the US approach to the Muslim world. They also go to the heart of European doubts about both the practicality and sincerity of US progressive agendas in the Middle East. The grounds for such doubts are especially worth recalling at present, given the short-term exuberance produced by developments such as the Iraqi elections and anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon. Mr Bush was first attracted to Mr Sharansky by his noble record of resistance to Soviet tyranny, which earned him years in Soviet jails. Today, however, Mr Sharansky is a leader of the Soviet immigrant-based Yisrael Ba'aliyah party, which takes a hard line on Palestinian demands and security issues, and has supported the expansion of settlements.

In his book, Mr Sharansky writes that peace depends on the spread of democracy and this should be driven by a coalition of all "free nations" of the world. In his words: "The free world should not wait for dictatorial regimes to consent to reform. We must be prepared to move forward over their objections . . . we can live in a world where no regime that attempts to crush dissent will be tolerated."

Mr Sharansky's demand for greater democracy is, of course, focused foremost on the Palestinians. He said in February that he would be prepared to give the Palestinians "all the rights in the world" once they fully adopted democracy. The problem is that Mr Sharansky has never said what land he would be willing to concede, even to a fully democratic Palestinian state. His record in office, however, has reflected utter contempt for the lives, property and well-being of Palestinians, as well as for their opinions, whether democratically expressed or not.

As Israel's minister of Jerusalem affairs, Mr Sharansky decided last June to interpret a 1950 law in such a way as to allow the Israeli government without legal process to confiscate Palestinian land around Jerusalem - a decision that has now been struck down by Israel's attorney general on the grounds that it is legally indefensible, contrary to "the rules of customary international law" and bound to encourage violence.

In writing of the need to bring democracy to the Arab world, Mr Sharansky makes repeated parallels with America's propagation of its democratic message to the subject peoples of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. But the peoples of eastern Europe, the Baltic states and the Caucasus had good reason to identify America and democracy not only with personal freedom but with national liberation from Soviet domination. Ask many ordinary Arabs which superpower today is playing a role in the Middle East analogous to that of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe and what answer would you get?

The parallel with eastern Europe therefore, far from being encouraging, actually suggests the greatest problem faced by proponents of westernising reform in the Middle East today: namely, the immense difficulty they have in mobilising nationalism in support of their programme.

Of course, were it possible for the US to act in the Muslim world as it has done in eastern Europe, and to spread freedom and development, this would indeed be a wonderful boon for the region and the world. But none of this can possibly happen as long as the US is identified both by Muslims and by Europeans with agendas such as Mr Sharansky's. If Mr Bush really wants to play a progressive role in the region, he badly needs other sources of advice and inspiration.

* Natan Sharansky (with Ron Dermer), The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (Public Affairs)

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC; his latest book is America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (OUP/HarperCollins)