The appointment of Dennis Ross as “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for The Gulf and Southwest Asia” (announcement here) has caused some puzzlement, in part because the geographic focus of his title seems fuzzy. This is especially so for “Southwest Asia.”
On the face of it, “Southwest Asia” looks like a geographic reference, and it has always had a few enthusiasts among geographers. It’s also been favored by those who deem it less Eurocentric than “Middle East” or “Near East.” (Maybe it is, but since Asia as a continent is a European idea, calling any region “Southwest Asia” hardly solves the problem.) Once there was even a maverick academic program, at SUNY Binghamton, called the Program in Southwest Asian and North African Studies (SWANA for short). But “Southwest Asia” got no traction in American academe, and even the SUNY program eventually swapped SWANA for MENA (Middle East and North Africa).
So when did “Southwest Asia” finally get its big break, and begin to turn up in high places as a near-synonym for the Middle East? “From the moment of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979,” wrote U.S. diplomat and strategist John C. Campbell, “Washington began to talk of ‘Southwest Asia’ instead of the Middle East as the area of crisis and of American concern.” Cold War strategists wished to emphasize that the region was crucial not because it was east of us, but because it was immediately southwest of the Soviet Union, which had a plan to push through to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The sooner Americans started thinking about the region as “Southwest Asia,” the sooner they would grasp the nature of the threat.
National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski effected the shift in labeling. Two days after the Soviet invasion, he warned President Jimmy Carter that “the collapse of the balance of power in Southwest Asia… could produce Soviet presence right down on the edge of the Arabian and Oman Gulfs.” Carter, reeling from the combined effects of the invasion and the Iran hostage crisis, opened a dramatic television address to the nation some days later with these words: “I come to you this evening to discuss important and rapidly changing circumstances in Southwest Asia.” Carter proceeded to warn Americans of “a threat of further Soviet expansion into neighboring countries in Southwest Asia.” A month later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee jumped on board, and held a series of landmark hearings later published as “U.S. Security Interests and Policies in Southwest Asia.”
“A new name has been devised to cover these counties on which attention has been concentrated during the past 12 months,” wrote the military historian Sir Michael Howard in Foreign Affairs a year later. “Southwest Asia: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and the oil-bearing states bordering what now must tactfully be termed simply ‘the Gulf,’ all constituting a politically seismic zone of incalculable explosive potential.” Campbell later gave a similar definition: “‘Southwest Asia’ includes everything from the eastern fringes of the Arab world to the western limits of the Indian subcontinent.” (Campbell also added that “roughly, it is Zbigniew Brzezinski’s ‘arc of crisis.'” Brzezinski had coined that phrase a year before the Soviet invasion, and it figured prominently in a January 1979 story in TIME magazine, whose cover showed a Soviet bear looming over the Persian Gulf. TIME explained that Brzezinski’s “arc of crisis” consisted of “the nations that stretch across the southern flank of the Soviet Union from the Indian subcontinent to Turkey, and southward through the Arabian Peninsula to the Horn of Africa.”)
This “Southwest Asia,” then, wasn’t a geographic reference at all, but a strategic one with a Cold War application. Not surprisingly, both the CIA and the Pentagon quickly picked up the term and ran with it. The CIA established a Southwest Asia Analytic Center, which produced papers like “The Soviets and the Tribes of Southwest Asia.” The Defense Department acted similarly, applying “Southwest Asia” (SWA) to a large area centered in the Gulf, but extending far beyond it. “Southwest Asia” is now the core of CENTCOM’s “Area of Responsibility” (AOR), which runs from Kazakhstan to Kenya.
Which brings us back to the Ross appointment at the State Department. “Southwest Asia” isn’t much used at State, which still prefers “Middle East” and hasn’t even given up entirely on “Near East.” (“Southwest Asia” is regularly used only in the Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, where it includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka.) After the Ross announcement, journalists wanted to know exactly what Ross’s own area of responsibility covered. In particular, did it include Afghanistan and Pakistan, the original entry point to “Southwest Asia” of the Cold War strategists? Hadn’t responsibllity for both countries already been given to Richard Holbrooke, named only a month earlier as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan?
At first, even the acting State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, didn’t know just what “Southwest Asia” included, which made for an embarrassing exchange at the Department’s daily press briefing. (Question: “You guys named an envoy for Southwest Asia. I presume that you know what countries that includes.” Wood: “Yes. Of course, we know. I just—I don’t have the list to run off—you know, right off the top of my head here.”
But the next day, Wood had an answer:
MR. WOOD: Let me give you my best—our best read of this. From our standpoint, the countries that make up areas of the Gulf and Southwest Asia include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, and those are the countries.
QUESTION: Not—not Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. WOOD: Look, Ambassador Ross will look at the entire region, should he be asked to, including Afghanistan. But this is something that would be worked out. You were—you asked the question yesterday about Ambassador Holbrooke and whether there was going to be some kind of, I don’t know, conflict over who is working in—on that particular issues in that country.
Look, Ambassador Ross and Ambassador Holbrooke will work together where necessary if they need to, if there’s some kind of overlap. But that’s, in essence, the State Department’s geographical breakdown of Southwest Asia.
QUESTION: Okay. So it does not—it is not the same breakdown as the military uses?
MR. WOOD: No, the military uses a different breakdown, but I’d have to refer you to them for their specific breakdown.
QUESTION: So it doesn’t include Jordan? It doesn’t include—
MR. WOOD: I just gave you the breakdown as I—as the State Department breaks it down.
QUESTION: So if Ambassador Ross is special envoy—special advisor for Gulf and Southwest Asia, what is the difference between Gulf and Southwest Asia?
MR. WOOD: Look—
QUESTION: For me, this is Gulf.
MR. WOOD: Well, it may be for you. For others, it may be different. I’d have to—I’ve given you what the Department’s position is with regard to the geographic makeup of the region.
Why did the State Department construe “Southwest Asia” so narrowly—so much so that it really is indistinguishable from “The Gulf”? That’s a matter for speculation. One report says Ross did have Afghanistan and Pakistan on the list of countries he thought belonged in the package. Holbrooke reportedly insisted they both be dropped, and got his way.
But it’s already clear that last week added yet another layer of confusion to the terminology the United States inflicts on the region to suit its own political, diplomatic, and strategic requirements. There is a “Near East” and a “Middle East” and a “Greater Middle East” (GME) and a “Middle East and North Africa” (MENA) and a “Broader Middle East and North Africa” (BMENA). And now, alongside the Defense Department’s greater “Southwest Asia,” we have the lesser “Southwest Asia” of the State Department as scaled down for Ross. (This is not to be confused with the “Southwest Asia” of the State Department’s own Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Not a single country in that bureau’s “Southwest Asia” is identical to Ross’s.) Of course, labels tend to slip and slide across the map over time, depending on circumstance. It’s just remarkable to see them slip and slide at one time, in one building.
Meanwhile, in Iran, there is no confusion, only outrage that the appointment of Ross mentions “The Gulf,” as opposed to the Persian Gulf. Iran has waged a persistent campaign to keep the Persian adjective firmly fastened to the Gulf. But the Iranian government won’t take offense at Iran’s inclusion in “Southwest Asia”—to the contrary. Last year a leading Iranian journalist wrote a column entitled “There Is No Middle East.” The message:
The people of Southwest Asia and North Africa should not use the appellation Middle East to describe their home region because it was coined by European imperialists. The use of such non-indigenous terms only serves to reinforce mental slavery and subjugation…. The vocabulary that we use influences our thought patterns. If Muslims use Eurocentric vocabulary, even when speaking our own languages, it will undermine our sense of identity. A better substitute for the Middle East/North Africa would be Southwest Asia/North Africa, which could be abbreviated as SWANA.
Don’t Persians know that the naming of Asia is owed to… the Greeks?.
Below: Jimmy Carter delivers his January 4, 1980 televised address concerning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (There is a brief preface on the Iran hostages.) His White House diary records this as an “Address to the Nation on the situation in Southwest Asia.” Notice the prop in the opening shot: a globe positioned so as to show the region. Toward the end of this segment, the camera pans across a map. (If you cannot see the embedded clip, or wish to view the entire address, click here.)