Allies of Diminishing Return

Allies of Diminishing Return

Mini Teaser: Al-Hussein ibn Talal al-Hashem (a.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

Al-Hussein ibn Talal al-Hashem (a.k.a. the King of Jordan) has been many things to many people in his thirty-eight years on the throne.  For those charged with managing the foreign policy of the United States, he began in 1953 as the very young ruler of a very small kingdom then seen as a British responsibility.  By the early 1960s Hussein had become a relatively minor American ward in a region just on the periphery of the Cold War.  After June 1967, Jordan became a key player in the occasionally intense effort to settle the Arab-Israeli dispute, and in September 1970, the eye of a great but mercifully brief storm in U.S.-Soviet brinkmanship over the Middle East.

Since the Arab League empowered the PLO to speak on behalf of Palestinians in November 1974, however, Jordan's potential diplomatic role in Arab-Israeli affairs has slowly diminished.  And now, after Jordan's actions during the Gulf War, King Hussein has come to represent one of a distinct breed of allies for U.S. foreign policy: an ally of diminishing returns.

As with other such allies--Syngman Rhee and the Greek junta many years ago, Manuel Noriega and Samuel Doe more recently, and Sese Seko Mobuto today--America has come to expect less of the king.  Nevertheless, we deal favorably with him not primarily because he can still do U.S. interests a great deal of good, but because his as yet unknown successors could do those interests a great deal of harm.  While the king's seemingly outrageous anti-American behavior during the Gulf War has led to serious criticism of both him and the U.S.-Jordanian relationship, a careful look at both the king's actions and the reality of his position and role in the region demonstrates that he is still an ally with whom we must continue to do business.

King Hussein was criticized sharply for his pro-Iraqi tilt during the Gulf Crisis and War, and administration principals initially joined--and sometimes led--the chorus.  There was much to be annoyed about.  It was, after all, King Hussein (as well as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak) who assured President Bush that his Iraqi ally would not invade Kuwait.  Far more important than that--for anyone can be deceived--Washington expected that the invasion would elicit, at the very least, some Jordanian equivocation about supporting Saddam.  Instead there was virtually unwavering support for him on the king's part.  The president was so annoyed with the extent of Jordan's early support for Iraq that the one time Bush lost his temper in public during the crisis came when ABC's Ann Compton, at an August 5 news conference, began describing a pro-Iraqi interview given that day by the king.  "I can read," Bush shot back, almost certainly more annoyed with King Hussein than with Compton.

As the crisis continued, Jordanian behavior worsened.  The nonsensical and endlessly repeated Hashemite refrain, that had it not been for the hasty introduction of U.S. forces an Arab solution could have been found, very much annoyed officials in Washington.  Days after the invasion, when President Bush was characterizing Saddam Hussein as a Hitler, King Hussein told NBC News that Saddam was "a person to be trusted and dealt with."  Thereafter, despite the king's visit to Kennebunkport on August 16, Jordan's seemingly two-faced behavior regarding sanctions, its complaints about the U.S. embassy monitoring the Jordanian-Iraqi border as the refugee problem grew in scope, its strong anti-American rhetoric, and the king's gambit of bringing the Europeans in to undermine U.S. strategy continued to vex Washington throughout the nearly six months before the beginning of the air war.

In addition, unconfirmed claims surfaced that Jordan was training Iraqis in the use of captured Hawk missiles, that Jordanian intelligence was aiding Iraq, that Jordanian weapons had been sent to Iraq before and during the fighting, that Jordan was laundering money for Iraq, and that some Iraqi mobile SCUD launchers were hiding in Jordan despite the best efforts of coalition air forces to find them.  Meanwhile, too, Jordanian truck drivers were still plying the Iraqi-Jordanian desert highway in violation of the UN embargo, an activity that, in early February, caused them to feel the brunt of coalition air attacks.

On February 7 King Hussein delivered a stunningly anti-American speech, seemingly triggered by the death of Jordanian truck drivers on that road and the continued bombing of Baghdad.  The administration, in response, expressed its bitter disappointment with Hussein, suspended aid to Jordan, and commenced to "review" next year's aid allotment as well.  The Jordanians, in turn, professed outrage, anger, and dismay.  It appeared that U.S.-Jordanian relations had plummeted to their lowest point ever.

However bad the situation was, at least some of the umbrage on both sides may have been staged for effect.  We do not know what was said at Kennebunkport on August 16, but it must have been clear to U.S. officials that Hussein's domestic situation limited Hashemite options.  The need for the king to posture for self-preservation was doubtlessly understood in Washington, as was the frightening prospect of a Hussein-less Jordan in the midst of the crisis.  The discussion may have led to more than just an exchange of sensitivities.  The details remain hidden, but reporter Thomas Friedman remarked in the February 9 New York Times:

While administration officials say they are ready to accept a certain amount of posturing by the King, who has provided some useful intelligence on Iraq, and tacit military cooperation since the Gulf War began, they felt his speech of this week crossed a line [emphasis added]....

There is more.  King Hussein's particularly outrageous anti-American speech of February 7, it turns out, was motivated by an urgent concern for survival.  According to well-placed administration sources, Saddam Hussein had learned of Jordanian efforts to repair relations with Washington--this is where the gifts to which Friedman referred may have come into play--and had issued the baldest of personal threats against the king.

Despite knowledge of this, the U.S. cold shoulder continued for a time even after the war ended.  This was partly on account of the administration's pique at Jordan's having exceeded its allotment of allowable and forgivable posturing, and partly because an Israeli-Syrian negotiation was the focus of Secretary of State Baker's efforts at the time.  And with a hostile and bewildered Palestinian "street" in Jordan still absorbing the scale of the Iraqi collapse, it was no time for the king to take his first step toward reconciliation.  So Baker snubbed Hussein on his first two postwar trips to the region, and Policy Planning Director Dennis Ross dubbed the king "a master of strategic misjudgment."  Soon, however, both the king and the administration commenced public efforts to patch things up, with the king asking forgiveness all around and the president expressing friendship and speaking in glowing terms of an old and valued relationship.

While the administration had begun to come to terms with Hussein as an ally of diminishing returns, Congress lagged behind.  In mid-March, seemingly determined to act on yesterday's news and yesterday's emotions, the Senate tried to turn Jordan's aid money--a pathetic $55 million in this case--into diplomatic bait by warning Hussein that if he didn't cooperate in the Arab-Israeli peace process, Jordan would get no U.S. assistance.

King Hussein did not deserve such treatment.  Jordan simply cannot do as much to advance U.S. Middle East policy today as it could a decade or two ago.  Understanding the king's fears and the limits of Jordan's helpfulness puts the administration's recent policy toward Jordan squarely in the category of a policy of diminished expectations, but a justifiable policy all the same.

Since early 1988, the king has set a course to make Jordan's government independent of himself as a person and much less dependent on near-absolute monarchical authority: the July 1988 disengagement from the West Bank, the November 1989 election, the 1990 preparation of a National Charter legalizing political parties, and the king's willingness to allow an Islamist-minded parliament to influence important policy questions are all examples.  In this way, King Hussein had given the Jordanian "street" such a wide swath of influence and organizing energy that opposing its spontaneous support for Iraq after the August 2 invasion would have been extremely dangerous.  To do so probably would have required ordering the army and security police to shoot demonstrators; had the king done that, even assuming the order would have been obeyed, his efforts to build for the future would have gone for nothing.

Even worse, the Hashemites feared that, as a consequence of war, Jordan would be turned into a "killing field" between Iraq and Israel and literally not survive as an entity.  King Hussein was probably not exaggerating much when he said on November 17 that the Middle East was on the "verge of a catastrophe which would destroy our existence"; nor was Crown Prince Hassan just mouthing words when he said, "Plainly put, our small country of 3.5 million people is on the brink of destruction."(1)  The rhetoric about Saddam Hussein from the king and crown prince during the earlier stages of the crisis, then, did not reflect bad judgment and sincere anti-Americanism so much as bad luck and genuine fear.

Essay Types: Essay