Democratic Spaces

Thomas Friedman is many things: A pessimist is not one of them.

Arguing that Lebanon's recent election signals the stirrings of a real democratic process in the Middle East, he lays out for four reasons for the change: First, the diffusion of new horizontal forms of media that allow for communication outside of state-controlled media outlets. Second, a new space (more on this in a second) for democracy in the Middle East as a result of Pres. Bush's policies of the past eight years. Third, the shift from Islamist to secular parties. Finally, there is the election of Pres. Obama and the United States' concerted efforts to push its "soft power". Friedman's argument is America-centric and perhaps too optimistic, but I want to briefly return to his comment about "space":
Second, for real politics to happen you need space. There are a million things to hate about President Bush’s costly and wrenching wars. But the fact is, in ousting Saddam in Iraq in 2003 and mobilizing the U.N. to push Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, he opened space for real democratic politics that had not existed in Iraq or Lebanon for decades. “Bush had a simple idea, that the Arabs could be democratic, and at that particular moment simple ideas were what was needed, even if he was disingenuous,” said Michael Young, the opinion editor of The Beirut Daily Star. “It was bolstered by the presence of a U.S. Army in the center of the Middle East. It created a sense that change was possible, that things did not always have to be as they were.”
What's interesting about Friedman's argument is the way it blurs the distinction between a material territory (the space of the nation-state) and a kind of imaginative space (one in which it's possible to imagine difference). I'm not sure that Friedman meant to do this, but it's an interesting idea - considering the relationship between material space and the possibilities of imagination. As a last question, what are we to make of a situation in which military power becomes the necessary precondition for "democratic" change? How do we think through that paradox?


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