Where Is the Middle East?

A Muslim pilgrim prays on Mount al-Noor outside of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, November 2010. Mohammed Salem / Reuters

INTERNATIONAL crisis is one of the best teachers of geography. Among the centers of crisis that have burst onto the American public's map in recent years are Suez, Cyprus, Baghdad, Algeria, the Lebanon and others commonly lumped together today under the general label "Middle East." In the context of the cold war, the Middle East has rapidly emerged as a primary center of concern for American foreign policy.

Yet the fact remains that no one knows where the Middle East is, although many claim to know. Scholars and governments have produced reasoned definitions that are in hopeless disagreement. There is no accepted formula, and serious efforts to define the area vary by as much as three to four thousand miles east and west. There is not even an accepted core for the Middle East. Involved in the terminological chaos is of course the corollary question of how the Middle East relates to the Near East--or, indeed, whether the Near East still exists at all.

What might be simply a comedy of semantic confusion is rendered more serious because popular use of the neologism Middle East has obliged scholars and specialists to employ it also, to their disadvantage. The United States Government as well has now begun to use the term officially, but in varying senses that add to the general obfuscation.

In 1957 a national policy, the so-called Eisenhower Doctrine, was established to provide for American military and economic aid to nations in "the general area of the Middle East," to use the language of the Congressional resolution. Committees of the House and Senate naturally asked Secretary of State Dulles to define the region where the United States was prepared to act. Mr. Dulles furnished a reasonably exact definition of the Middle East: "the area lying between and including Libya on the west and Pakistan on the east and Turkey on the north and the Arabian peninsula to the south," plus the Sudan and Ethiopia. He added that Middle East and Near

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