King Hussein 774.3.eer Louis J. Sheehan

431 pp. Yale University Press. $35

King Hussein of Jordan (1935-99)was the great survivor of Middle East politics. For almost half a century until his death in 1999 he balanced delicately between the Arab world, Israel and the United States. There were few important events in the region in which he did not play a role, from the Suez crisis in 1956, when Israel, Britain and France invaded Egypt, to the bungled attempt 40 years later by the C.I.A. and Iraqi exiles to overthrow Saddam Hussein using Jordan as a base.

But Hussein was always far more than an artful opportunist cynically shifting alliances with the sole aim of staying in power. It is for this reason that these two excellent biographies are so worthwhile. “Lion of Jordan,” by Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, and “King Hussein of Jordan,” by Nigel Ashton, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science, provide insight not only into the king but into the conflicts that ravaged the region during his lifetime. Shlaim has a particularly valuable account of Hussein’s relations with Israel and the Palestinians, while Ashton is very interesting on Hussein’s relations with Iraq and the wider Arab world.

Hussein’s critics accused him of being all things to all men, and it is true that he systematically cultivated good relations with leaders who would speak to him but loathed one another. Jordan’s colors were, in the patronizing words of one British ambassador soon after Hussein was crowned king in 1953, “firmly nailed to the fence.” The jibe had some truth in it, though it under­estimated Hussein’s capacity for swift and independent action if his interests were threatened.

Britain created Jordan out of the largely barren and scantily inhabited land east of the Jordan River in the aftermath of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. For its ruler the British chose Abdullah, the second son of the sharif of Mecca and their ally against the Ottomans, who became the first member of the Hashemite dynasty to rule Jordan. A political realist like his grandson Hussein, he was adamantly averse to fighting anybody stronger than himself, and this included the nascent Israeli state. He emerged a winner in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 when he ordered his army across the Jordan River with the objective, as Shlaim puts it, not of preventing “the establishment of a Jewish state but to make a bid for the Arab part of Palestine.” Three years later Abdullah paid a price for this when he was shot dead by a Palestinian nationalist gunman as he walked, together with the 15-year-old Hussein, into Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

When Hussein succeeded his mentally ill father he inherited an impoverished kingdom at the heart of a chronically unstable political earthquake zone. Between then and his death he saw many of the world’s most dangerous crises erupt on his doorstep, in Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Geography made Jordan an important player. Shlaim and Ashton show how skillfully its ruler played his hand.

The British were the first to discover that the new king was unwilling to behave as the pliant tool of Western powers in order to keep his crown. He was an autocrat but also saw himself as an Arab nationalist. The Jordanian Army had been built up by the British general John Bagot Glubb, who was viewed by foreigners and Jordanians alike as the power behind the throne. In 1956 the young king suddenly sacked this important figure, giving Glubb at first just two hours to leave the country. “Hussein’s broad political reason for dismissing Glubb,” Shlaim remarks, “stemmed from his fear that if he did not place himself at the head of the nationalist movement, he would be overwhelmed by it.”

It was a calculation that was to determine or at least color many of Hussein’s policy decisions. It gave the lie to Arab nationalist critics who denounced him as a stooge for the British and the Americans or a treacherous collaborator with Israel, though he cultivated close relations with all three. It helped save him from the fate of his cousin and boyhood friend King Faisal II of Iraq, shot down by Iraqi army officers during a military coup in Baghdad in 1958. This need to show that he stood with his fellow Arabs also propelled Hussein into his most disastrous decision. In 1967 he went to war with Israel as an ally of Egypt and Syria and in a few days lost East Jerusalem and the West Bank, half of his kingdom.

In the aftermath of this catastrophic defeat, many foreign observers believed he could not survive. Yet the king always held a slightly stronger hand than others imagined. In a region of military regimes he had the loyalty of the army, which drew many of its officers and men from Bedouin tribes of Jordan. In the brief civil war of 1970 between Hussein’s forces and the Palestinian fedayeen, he commanded 65,000 well-trained and well-equipped troops compared with 15,000 lightly armed Palestinian militiamen. The outcome of the conflict was never in doubt.

The United States had long replaced Britain as Hussein’s main foreign mentor, and Washington’s political, military and financial backing was essential to him. With few natural resources Jordan was always in need of a paymaster. The king also needed to know what was in the minds of successive Israeli leaders to avert any direct military threat or plans to turn Jordan into a permanent national home for the Palestinians.

These encounters, entailing a great number of meetings with American and Israeli political, military and intelligence leaders, are retailed at somewhat excessive length in both these books. The king’s diplomatic efforts, as he himself repeatedly said, were all too frequently ineffectual. Shlaim concludes sadly that Hussein’s attempts “to work out a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Middle East met, for the most part, with ignorance and indifference on the part of the top American policy makers and dishonesty and deviousness on the part of the Israeli ones.”

The sources for the life of King Hussein have become plentiful. “Until now, no biography of a contemporary Arab leader has been written with the benefit of full access to his papers,” writes Ashton, who was given entry to the royal archive by Hussein’s son and successor, King Abdullah II, in 2007. These papers certainly flesh out our knowledge of Hussein’s relationship with other leaders, from Saddam Hussein to Ronald Reagan, but they are scarcely revelatory. What they do confirm is Hussein’s reputation for being a highly intelligent and kindhearted man, surely the most attractive of recent Middle Eastern leaders, though the competition here is scarcely very stiff.

On one occasion a suspiciously large number of dead cats were found in the palace grounds in Amman, the Jordanian capital. Investigators discovered that a royal cook had been bribed by Syrian security to poison the king and was testing the correct dosage on the local cat population. Shlaim relates that the cook was jailed “until Hussein responded to a plea from the cook’s daughter by releasing him to celebrate a Muslim feast with his family.” Compare this with the actions of Saddam Hussein, who reacted to a botched attempt to assassinate him in Dujail north of Baghdad in 1982 by torturing to death or executing 148 men and boys from the village.

Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire


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