As Monday's deadline approaches for drafting the constitution for the new government of Iraq, more than the future of that war-torn country is at stake. In a real sense, this is the first crucial test for the ambitious project of bringing democracy to the Middle East and Persian Gulf that President Bush has made a centerpiece of his second-term foreign policy.

Certainly the new monarch in Saudi Arabia and the leaders of Egypt and the nations of the Arab world across North Africa and into the Gulf are all watching closely how this experiment works. And so are the people and organizations within those countries who hope the United States is serious about pressing the cause of political reform in that part of the world.

One lesson from Iraq is already clear. It takes more than a free election to create a functioning democracy. Iraq had a remarkably successful popular vote to create an interim government in January, and yet it has been a struggle to develop the framework for a structure in which a permanent government -- yet to be chosen -- can function.

We should not be surprised. Our own history was marked by protracted and faltering efforts before the Constitution was adopted in Philadelphia. The system of federalism -- of shared sovereignty between national and state governments -- that was the key to our Constitutional Convention is one of the major stumbling blocks in Iraq.

The United States, through its embassy, military presence and aid programs, has more influence on the struggle for democracy in Iraq than in any other country in the region.

But even there, our cards must be played with subtlety and discretion. And, as a timely report from the Council on Foreign Relations, "In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How," reminds us, the United States must be "mindful that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside."

The task force that produced the report was headed by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former Minnesota representative Vin Weber, with the council's Steven Cook as the project director. Their work was informed by a three-day conference in Cairo with a dozen resident experts from the Arab world. It is a serious contribution to thinking about this important topic.

For example, it deals straightforwardly with the likelihood that Islamist groups will play an important role in any Middle East political systems that become more open. But it says the United States should view skeptically the claims from Arab governments that the "Islamist threat [is] a prime reason why they cannot risk pursuing political change."

Parties that commit to nonviolence, tolerance of opposing views, the rights of women and minorities and the rule of law -- even those with histories of terrorism -- should be allowed to compete, provided they lay down their arms, it says.

The report is also realistic about current U.S. policy. While it strongly endorses the principles behind Bush's vision, it is blunt in saying that "the invasion [of Iraq] has not helped America's standing or credibility in the region, nor do many Arabs look at Iraq and say, 'I wish my country could be like that.' " That makes the aftermath -- democracy or continued violence -- even more important.

It says the United States should continue to work to reduce tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, but should not accept the view that the Palestinian question must be settled before progress can be made toward democracy in the Middle East, or that peace talks must await the full democratization of the Palestinian Authority.

The report is full of practical suggestions for the administration and particularly for longtime Bush adviser Karen Hughes as she takes up her State Department job as the head of U.S. public diplomacy.

The United States needs to do more to bring Arab students and journalists to this country -- including reviewing the barriers to their visa entry imposed since Sept. 11, 2001. It needs to promote private media in the Arab world but back off from pressuring the governments in that region to censor the anti-American content on al-Jazeera and other networks, lest it make our support of free expression look hypocritical.

The report urges the administration to revive the moribund Voice of America Arabic service and to make its own substitute service, al-Hurra, less of a propaganda machine and more of an instrument for showing C-SPAN-style inside looks at our functioning democracy.

At the bottom line, it says, the effort Bush has launched is as tricky as it is vital, so we must be patient, persistent and smart.