Where's the Middle East?
January 07, 2014

WhereaEUR(TM)s the Middle East? Mostly in West Asia and by some definitions extending to North and East Africa and Central Asia. Yet no geographic term could be more obsolete and misleading. In my view, a major result of misconceptions about what comprises the Middle East is the United StatesaEUR(TM) repetitive aEURoeFire, ready, aimaEUR? policy failures of recent years. The polyglot realities of these vast areas ensure that our attempts rarely hit a target, since we canaEUR(TM)t define where or what it is.


The neologism was first used prior to World War I by U. S. and later British naval strategists, for whom the center of the Middle East was the Persian Gulf. They designated the Middle East as aEURoethe area between Arabia and India.aEUR? Their objective was to maintain a gateway to India and the East, a dominant priority of the emerging oil-based economy of the 20th century.

The inflation of the idea of the aEURoeMiddle EastaEUR? continued after the war to refer to Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Turkestan, and the Caucasus. By 1957, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles bloated the definition further, describing the Middle East as aEURoethe area lying between and including Libya on the west and Pakistan on the east, Syria and Iraq on the North and the Arabian Peninsula to the south, plus Sudan and Ethiopia.aEUR? In 2004, the Bush administration met that swollen political definition and raised itaEUR"identifying the Middle East with most of the regions that have Muslim majorities. This Eurocentric definition includes areas whose only common characteristic seems to be populations of darker-skinned Caucasians.

Beyond Arabic, these regions include speakers of Aramaic, Armenian, Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, Persian, Amharic, and several dozen other language groups crossing ethnic, political, and demographic boundaries. By accident, if not design, the term Middle East created even further confusion about the origin of the aEURoeMiddle East conflictaEUR? (if only it were simple enough to be described in the singular). Common belief would hold that the Middle East conflict somehow hinges upon the resolution of the partition of the region known in the 19th century as Southern Syria (or Southern Levant-Israel/Palestine) between a Jewish and an Arab state. The events of the Arab Spring, now turning into a dark winter in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere, belie the notion that the conflict between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors had much to do with broader conflicts throughout the minefield planted by British imperialism and the competing interests of oil cartels.

This is more than a quibble about the geopolitical terminology that weaEUR(TM)ve garbled for so long. To make effective policy and help to establish constructive relationships among nations, we would do well to gain a greater understanding of the complexities of the regions collectively called the Middle East, whose future is inextricably tied to that of us all.