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Hussein Bin Talal: Soldier-King


Harvey Sicherman




From: Foreign Policy Research Inst <>

Date: Wed, 17 Feb 1999 14:08:08 +0000

Subj: Hussein Bin Talal: Soldier-King by Harvey Sicherman


Foreign Policy Research Institute


A Briefing on the Middle East Peace Process

Volume 6, Number 1

February 1999





By 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,


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


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


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.

Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is President of the Foreign Policy

Research Institute and a former aide to three U.S.

secretaries of state. He is author of Palestinian Autonomy,

Self-Government, and Peace.


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