For several months, Middle East watchers in Washington have been speculating about what role Dennis Ross, the former Middle East peace negotiator under Bill Clinton, would play in the Obama administration. On Jan 7, the networks all ran a story that Mr Ross was to be part of a triumvirate of special envoys: Richard Haass (a former National Security Council official and now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations) for the Middle East; Mr Ross for Iran; and Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The next day, the Financial Times ran a story based on a press release from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a pro-Israel think tank, and Mr Ross's perch after leaving the state department in 2001), claiming that Mr Ross was not to be one of three envoys, but an "ambassador-at-large" who would oversee the entire region. This caused concern among some Arab-American and American Jewish peace organisations, who met with and wrote to US president Barack Obama's transition officials, urging them to appoint a special envoy to the Middle East "as big as the problem demands and the solution we seek" - not plagued by the baggage of past failures.
Then, on Jan 22, at an elaborate state department ceremony, Mr Obama, Joe Biden, the vice president, and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, announced the appointment of the special envoys - George Mitchell to the Middle East and Mr Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr Ross was nowhere to be seen. What, then, was to become of Dennis Ross? One month later, the mystery was resolved - or was it?
At 9pm on Monday, the state department sent out a notice announcing that Mr Ross was to be named as "a special adviser for the Gulf and south-west Asia". The title was not "envoy to Iran", we were told, because the United States does not have relations with Iran and, therefore, Mr Ross would not be negotiating with them. Rather, it was said, he will be an adviser to Mrs Clinton on regional strategies towards Iran.
Since that was not clear to anyone, the next day, reporters pressed a state department spokesman for a clarification of Mr Ross's role. Question: What is he in charge of exactly? Is it Iran? Why is it not written in the statement? Spokesman: The secretary is very happy that Dennis Ross agreed to serve as her special adviser for the Gulf and south-west Asia. What Dennis is going to be charged with is trying to integrate policy development and implementation across a number of offices and officials in the state department.
And, you know, he is going to be providing the secretary with strategic advice. He will also be trying to ensure that there's a coherence in our policies and strategies across the region. Let me be clear, he's not an envoy. He will not be negotiating. He'll be working on regional issues. He will not be - in terms of negotiating, will not be involved in the peace process. But, again, he's going to be advising the secretary on long-term strategic issues across the region.
Question: What is the state department's definition geographically of south-west Asia. Does it include Iraq does it include parts of the Middle East? Spokesman: Yes. Question: Does it include Syria, and Israel and Jordan? I mean, you know, you have NEA, which, you know, runs all the way to Morocco. Does it include Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, countries that are within the Middle East or within Near East Affairs Bureau, but are not technically part of south-west Asia?
Spokesman: He will be providing advice to the secretary on a - across that entire region, where appropriate, where she needs it, and that's the position he will serve A decision was made by the secretary that she needed broad strategic advice to look at a range of issues across the entire region that we just talked about. And it was felt that his skills could be better used to do that type of work, given the years of experience that he's had dealing with the Middle East, other parts of the world. And so, again, as I said, Iran will be one of those countries that he will be, you know, looking at in his portfolio.
Look, it's more - he's going to be providing advice to the secretary on a number of regional issues, and I would not try to limit Dennis's advice to, you know, just those regions. He may have other - you know, he may have advice that he wants to give the secretary on other issues. I don't think we're trying to narrow it here. If you're looking for a geographical breakdown of those countries he will be looking
Question: It would be nice to find out what the state department considers to be south-west Asia. Spokesman: We can certainly do that for you. Since that exchange only added confusion, the next day the questioning began again. Question: Have your ace geographers been able to determine what south-west Asia is and thereby figure out what exactly Dennis Ross's mandate is? Spokesman: From our standpoint, the countries that make up areas of the Gulf and south-west Asia include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, and those are the countries.
Question: Not - not Afghanistan and Pakistan? Spokesman: Look, ambassador Ross will look at the entire region, should he be asked to, including Afghanistan ambassador Ross and ambassador Holbrooke will work together where necessary if they need to, if there's some kind of overlap. Question: So it doesn't include Jordan? It doesn't include Spokesman: I just gave you a breakdown as I - as the state department breaks it down.
... and on and on for two more pages, adding only more confusion to an already confused picture of what Dennis Ross will actually be doing. Is that clear? firstname.lastname@example.org