Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Hussein bin Talal: Soldier-King

Harvey Sicherman

King Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, dead at sixty-three, experienced almost everything in life except old age. The parade of world leaders before Hussein’s bier on February 8, 1999, included several, such as Syria’s dictator Hafez Al-Assad, who had more than once wished him ill. Indeed, no man seemed less likely to die in bed than Hussein bin Talal. He was introduced to international politics on Friday, July 20, 1951, when he watched a Palestinian assassinate his grandfather Abdullah, the first King of Jordan, as they left the Al Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The boy, barely sixteen, survived only because the medal on his chest— they made them heavy in those days— deflected the bullet intended for him. Eighteen months later, following an officer’s course at Britain’s Sandhurst military college and the deposition of his schizophrenic father, Hussein ascended to the throne.

And what a throne! The Hashemites were an ancient family, descended directly from the Prophet Muhammad, but their realm was established only in the 1920s when Imperial Britain sought to settle its debt to those who had helped to defeat the Ottoman Turks in World War I. Winston Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, boasted long afterwards about how he had given Jordan to Abdullah one sunny afternoon in Jerusalem, but the gift seemed thoroughly well-disguised. Although attached to the British Mandate for Palestine, the new territory was closed to Jewish settlement, angering the Zionists, and under Hashemite rule, antagonizing the Palestinian Arab leaders in Jerusalem. Flanked by a hostile Syria and a Saudi Arabia whose ruler had evicted the Hashemites from their fief in Mecca, Jordan was a barren and vulnerable place. Only its ruler’s wits and foreign help could secure it.

When Hussein became King he had been trained only as a soldier, not a diplomat. And he had a soldier’s virtues: honor, courage, loyalty, dignity. He combined these with a passion for speedy things: racing cars, jet aircraft, a fast life. Neither democrat nor dictator, he was a benevolent ruler, willing to experiment with elections but persuaded of a mystical bond between himself, his family, and his people— reinforced by efficient police. He was not an intellectual, nor did he care much for men of words. Still less did he like elaborate ceremony. Essentially, he was a soldier-king, trained for the fight if forced into one but, unlike some of his Arab colleagues (notably, Saddam Hussein), lacking in blood lust. Hailed eventually as a peacemaker and moderate, the King actually spent most of his life in war, sometimes against Israel or Syria or the Palestinians, and always against the odds.

Throughout his life, he was the survivor’s survivor. The title of his 1962 autobiography, Uneasy Lies the Head, expressed his dilemma. History and Jordan’s limitations sentenced the King to a series of crises that he had to overcome, but could never resolve. He could not escape the grievances of the Palestinians, a majority in his land, but he could offer them citizenship and a voice. He could not expel them, but he could fight decisively, as he did in 1970, to prevent Arafat from turning Jordan into a Palestinian state.

Hussein could make neither war nor peace with Israel on his own. He joined the Arabs in their devastating 1967 defeat but not in their partial 1973 victory. For thirty years, he cultivated ties with successive Israeli leaders, always in secret. But there was less than met the eye in the “Jordanian option.” Hussein’s leap to peace with Israel would have required backing from a major Arab power and the United States, acquiescence from the Palestinians, and a return of virtually everything he lost in 1967. This constellation never appeared, and when the intifada erupted in December 1987 the Jordanian option evaporated.

Hussein could never make it without American support, yet he could never be entirely supportive of the United States. He preferred the British, but after the Suez debacle, found American protection against Nasserism. By the end of his life, he had seen so much of Washington that he knew American policy better than most of those appointed to make it. Still, he was no lackey, and preserved a steely dignity when necessary.

The King’s last decade began in disaster and ended in disappointment, interrupted by a brief burst of hope. This time the trouble came from the east. In the 1980s, Jordan grew close to Iraq, serving as the lucrative supply line for Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war. When Saddam threatened Kuwait in the fateful summer of 1990, King Hussein joined Fahd of Saudi Arabia and Mubarak of Egypt in counselling his close friend George Bush to stay clear; they all believed there was an “Arab solution.”

Then came the invasion. To widespread astonishment, King Hussein refused to join the American-led coalition against Iraq and spoke sympathetically about Saddam. Egypt and the Gulf states closed their doors and their wallets in anger while Washington recoiled in shock. What had happened? The King complained that he had been “misunderstood.” His duty, as he saw it, was to preserve the realm, and, with pro-Iraqi Palestinians demonstrating throughout Jordan, war against Iraq might mean civil war, which he feared more than any other calamity. A pro-Iraqi “neutrality,” on the other hand, threatened relations with the United States and possibly war with Israel. These terrors could only be avoided if war could be put off, period.

The war could not be put off, but in this supreme crisis, the King’s path produced a miracle. His pro-Iraqi rhetoric made him popular with the Palestinians. Simultaneously, his refusal to allow Iraq a base made him popular with the Israelis.

In Jerusalem, there was a political epiphany. Prime Minister Shamir and General Sharon, the men who spoke of Jordan as the Palestinian state, suddenly saw the virtue of the Hashemites, a Likud “Jordanian option.” And it was Shamir, who, after the war, strenuously insisted to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker that, despite American resentment, Jordan be given a prominent role at the Madrid Peace Conference.

The King’s miracle kept Jordan out of wars civil and foreign, but badly burned his bridges in Washington and the Gulf. After 1991, Jordan sank into severe economic depression as the Iraqi markets collapsed and the Palestinians forced out of the Gulf no longer remitted earnings. Refugees and the unemployed filled the streets. The King was soon lamenting that Jordan had no one to rely upon except God.

Then came the burst of hope. In August 1993, Arafat and Rabin found each other at Oslo. The King soon acted to reinsert Jordan into the end-game, despite Syrian opposition. On October 24, 1994, he signed a peace treaty with Israel. Jordan now took its place alongside the PLO and Egypt as peacemaker.

Hussein also found his ideal partner, the soldier-statesman Yitzhak Rabin. The polite but direct King and the gruff old general got on famously. Their politics also meshed; both were resolved to contain Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Significantly, Rabin reaffirmed Jordan’s important role in the future of Jerusalem.

The sun shone brightly but briefly. Only a year later, Rabin was assassinated. At his funeral, Hussein’s eulogy was warrior to warrior, peacemaker to peacemaker, man to man. Never fond of Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor, who may have appeared too enthusiastic about Arafat, Hussein welcomed the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. This proved a grievous disappointment. By spring of 1997, Hussein was writing angry letters questioning Netanyahu’s policies. Later, when Israelis attempted to kill a Hamas leader in Amman, the King complained, “I do not know what is in his mind.” Hussein, however, knew his own mind: he forced Netanyahu to release the jailed Hamas spiritual leader, Sheikh Yassin, tweaking both Arafat and the Israeli leader. Whatever his official relations, the King was popular in Israel. After an addled Jordanian soldier murdered seven Israeli schoolgirls, Hussein paid a dramatic condolence call. “You are our King, too,” said a bereaved father as the King knelt before the mourners.

Hussein also moved to join the anti-Saddam coalition, using the defection of Saddam’s sons-in-law (and their subsequent murder) in 1995 to declare his formal opposition to the Iraqi dictator. Still, the Gulf leaders ostracized him. At home, the economy was sour and the peace dividend meager. Austerity measures in 1996 led to riots. The Syrians and the Iraqis were also stirring trouble. And then his health failed.

A lesser man might have despaired, but not the King. His sense of duty forbade it. When Clinton, Arafat, and Netanyahu met at Wye Plantation in November, the King left his sickbed to rescue the agreement. At the White House signing ceremony late Friday afternoon, close to sunset, the emaciated Hussein’s powerful baritone summoned the better angels of the reluctant peacemakers.

Mortality was upon the King, but he was not finished. Four times married and eleven times a father, Hussein had been backstopped for over thirty years by his younger brother, Hassan, while his sons matured. The Crown Prince was a man who understood economics and the cybernet world. In the last month of his life, however, the King apparently concluded that Jordan needed another soldier on the throne. Was it just family politics or Hussein’s estimate that peace was still too far away? In another triumph of sheer will, he returned suddenly from the Mayo Clinic, braved bad weather in a triumphal motorcade to the cheers of his people, and then promptly sacked the Crown Prince in favor of Abdullah, his eldest son, also trained at Sandhurst. Thirteen days later, he was dead.

After forty-six years on the throne, King Hussein had come to embody his country and bequeathed a much more robust state than the one he inherited. But Jordan is still not strong enough to survive a bout of bad leadership, and Abdullah, like his father, will have to prove himself. And so the subjects of the dead King wept, perhaps not only for him, but also for themselves and their fears. He had hoped to secure their future, and in doing so, the future of his own family. He set a noble example. We can only hope that it was enough.