It needed help when its neighbors were strong; now it needs help when its neighbors are weak.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 15 2007 4:28 PM

The Jordan Factor

It needed help when its neighbors were strong; now it needs help when its neighbors are weak.

King Abdullah II of Jordan. Click image to expand.
Jordanian King Abdullah II

"Don't ask anybody else. Tell him 'Go,' " President Richard Nixon told then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. "Him" was the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Yitzhak Rabin. "Go" was an order to save Jordan's King Hussein from the looming attack of Syrian and possibly Iraqi forces who threatened to intervene in the fighting between Jordanian forces and Palestinian rebels.

It was September 1970, and Jordan was as fragile then as it is today, guarded only by the ability of its leaders to smartly maneuver their way through the region's endless crises. The wisdom of leaders—and the protection of friends: the United States and its proxy, Israel.

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On June 17, 1970, the U.S. National Security Council convened to discuss the unstable condition of two Middle Eastern governments, Lebanon and Jordan. Nixon warned that the time was coming when "the U.S. is going to be tested as to its credibility in the region." Thirty-seven years have passed, and almost nothing has changed. Jordan (and Lebanon) are still threatened by powerful, more extremist neighbors. The United States is still vying for credibility and is still being tested. Iraq is still a threat to Jordan, though in a different way. Passing the "test" means just one thing: keep the moderate Arab kingdom intact.

Jordan is a small country, trapped among bullying Syria, the confused Palestinian Authority, powerful Israel, and messy Iraq. Although Jordan may not be an issue for Americans pondering the repercussions of a pullout from the war zone, it is important for U.S. policy-makers—it always has been, and for the foreseeable future it will continue to be. Any president pondering his many bad options for Iraq must keep Jordan in mind.

Back in 1998, when the U.N. Security Council decided to impose more sanctions on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Hashemite kingdom was exempted. The United Nations ignored Iraq's illegal oil sales to its eastern neighbor, because no other country was willing to furnish Jordan with the cheap oil it badly needed. When the United States decided to invade Iraq, it was clear that Jordan would not be part of the mission. "It is too dangerous for Jordan to risk its political stability in joining a U.S.-led invasion," Kenneth Pollack wrote in his influential book The Threatening Storm.

It was the powerful Iraq that provided the threat then, and the weakened, chaotic Iraq that is threatening now. Jordan has a permanent "stability issue," as one U.S. official describes it. In the past, it was intimidated by its two powerful neighbors, Israel and Iraq; now it is troubled by the weakest of the weak, the Palestinian Authority and Iraq.

That's why we've heard such caustic responses from Jordanian officials whenever anyone mentions the possibility of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation as a solution to the never-ending Palestinian problem. Jordan's King Abdullah doesn't want more Palestinians to be added to his basket of worries, and during a recent interview, he said, "We reject the formula of confederation and federation, and we believe that proposing this issue at this specific point in time is a conspiracy against both Palestine and Jordan." The king added that he was "fed up talking about this issue."

But it is the threat from the West that's more troubling to the king right now. An intelligence assessment provided to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in March 2007 warned of the implications for Jordan of a U.S. exit from Iraq. It was one of the reasons that prompted him to publicly oppose such a withdrawal—despite the predictable anger of American liberals suspicious of Israel's role in the decision to invade. But American officials didn't need the Israelis for such warnings—they heard them firsthand from King Abdullah himself and from other senior Jordanian officials. The way U.S. officials responded is reminiscent of Nixon's reaction in 1970: Whatever we do, they told him, we will keep your stability in mind.

This is easier said than done, especially for those trying to bring America's military involvement in Iraq to an end. Democratic leaders heard the Jordanian warnings. Some were impressed, and others thought the potential impact on Jordan was not a good enough reason to stay the course. "They're like this child at Christmas, wanting to get the pony," a congressional source told me last week. The "pony" being the United States staying put in Iraq. "But they can't get the pony, they'll get something else."

Jordan is swamped with Iraqi refugees, more than 750,000 of them. When "real" Jordanians are asked about the new immigrants, they sometimes insist on adding the adjective "temporary," but officials admit that getting rid of the newcomers will be hard. They open restaurants, they purchase houses. They are Sunnis, running away from Shiite expansionism and violence. If the United States leaves Iraq and a civil war gets out of hand, who knows how many more will come. One Democratic legislator, visiting with a Jordanian official not long ago, was told that "we will need to mobilize most of our military to the border" in the case of an American withdrawal. The Democrat responded by hinting that more aid in the form of equipment that can be used to seal the border is the help America will be willing to give. But if that isn't enough, America will give even more.

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