In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks the Middle East, largely ignored by the George W. Bush administration since the inauguration eight months earlier, became a central focus of U.S. foreign policy. The region, and the virulent Islamist ideology adhered to by terrorist groups such as al-Qa'ida, were perceived as a threat to the U.S. national interest. In response, the Bush administration identified a need for an activist, preemptive policy "defending the United States, the American people, and our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders" (White House 2002a). The decision by the administration to engage the region on these terms marked a radical departure from decades of U.S. Middle East policy that had placed primary emphasis on the stability of regimes in the region, regardless of their level of democratization and civil-society participation, and on securing a steady supply of oil, while ensuring the survival of the state of Israel by providing it with military and economic support.
Today, the administration's Middle East policy rests on a two-pronged approach. The first is an aggressive pursuit of identified terrorists and the regimes that support them through the so-called war on terror. The application of this approach can be seen clearly in the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan, closer cooperation with foreign security services, an increased U.S. military presence in the region, and the occupation of Iraq. The second prong, the focus of this article, is the democratic transformation of governments in the region, thereby making them less likely to harbor terrorists or tolerate activities that promote terrorism.
At the root of this Middle East policy is a very specific geographical conceptualization of the region, formed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. This article examines that conceptualization and outlines how the creation of the newly constructed regional identity ignores geographical reality. As a result, the image of the Middle East fashioned in the Bush administration's ideological imagination is fundamentally flawed and has undermined its attempts to realize a regional reform agenda. The effects of this imagined geography are particularly acute in the area of political reform, where they hinder the success of programs such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), launched in December 2002, and the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI), unveiled in June 2004.
From the outset, the Bush administration has struggled to define the geographical limits of the Middle East. A series of high-level policy initiatives, designed to address forces such as terrorism and the spread of violent Islamic ideology that span formal borders and operate beyond the reach of traditional state actors, spoke of the "Greater Middle East" and the "Broader Middle East." The GMEI, envisioned as the main vehicle with which to bring about reform in the region, was described as "the most ambitious U.S. democracy effort since the end of the Cold War.... The working definition of the 'greater Middle East' includes the 22 nations of the Arab world, plus Turkey in Europe, Israel, and Pakistan and Afghanistan in South Asia" (Wright 2004). Here, the Middle East has already been stretched beyond conventional limits to include Afghanistan and Pakistan. The GMEI even spanned the administrative units in the Department of State, where the policy was based, by including countries from within the purview of both the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. The policy was launched without a concrete list of the countries it addressed--the State Department announced that the countries to be included were still a "work in progress" (see, for example, Aljazeera.net. 2004)--and rumors spread throughout the Middle East that other Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the central Asian nations of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, would be included as well. …