The Idealism, And Realism, Of King Hussein
No alternate text on picture! - define alternate text in image propertiesDuring the reign of King Hussein, Jordanian currency would be printed with an empty space next to the image of a prominent site or prominent citizen. Hold the dinar up to a light, and a faint picture of the king would appear.
Jordan’s money served as an apt metaphor for the persona of Hussein ibn Talal, who led his desert kingdom for nearly five decades, until his death from cancer nearly 10 years ago. In a region characterized by megalomaniac despots and isolated royalty, Hussein was an exception, a scion of the once-powerful Hashemite dynasty who was a pervasive force in his country, omnipotent but not overbearing, omnipresent but not overpowering. In a society where leaders built a cult of personality around themselves and their family, Hussein maintained a discreet presence.
“To be sure, Hussein was an autocratic ruler ... but he was more tolerant and more benign than most of the rulers who captured power in the Arab world in later years, especially in Syria and Iraq,” Avi Shlaim writes in “Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace,” one of two new biographies of Jordan’s king. While by no means a Western-style democracy, Jordan under Hussein stood as a Levantine anomaly, offering greater freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and in general freedom of thought — a challenge in a land with a growing, militant Palestinian presence — than in other Arab countries. The country was a reflection of the ruler.
For a serious student of recent Middle East history, an understanding of Hussein puts the actions — and sometimes, the inactions — of Israel into a necessary context.
In two books that mine similar historical resources but present differing perspective on the king, Nigel Ashton, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics, and Shlaim, a professor of international relations at Oxford, document the life of the man and ruler who, usually out of public sight, played a crucial role in the first half-century of Israel, his non-Arab neighbor. Shlaim, who was born in Iraq and grew up in Israel, writes from an Israeli point of view, focusing on Israeli diplomacy and Israeli motives. Ashton, British, offers a wider context, incorporating a more global view.
Shlaim buttresses his archival research with an unprecedented interview he obtained with Hussein about the secretive meetings. Ashton obtained open access to the king’s private papers. Shlaim, part of the group of Israel’s New Historians, is unremittingly critical of Israeli leaders; Ashton, no apologist for Israel, offers a more-traditional rendition of the binational interchange.
Both books are replete with maps and photographs that bring the subject matter to life. Though both writers cover the same ground, Ashton’s book, in nearly half as many pages of actual text, is more comprehensive and more compelling. They both paint a portrait of a man who was both impulsive and cautious, both insightful into human character and inexplicably naïve about others, both prophetically visionary and frustratingly fatalistic, both social and shy. They explain how the monarch who, against his best judgment, allowed himself to be dragged into a 1967 regional war that spelled certain defeat for the Arab combatants, was able in 1994, despite opposition within and without his borders, to reach a political accommodation with Israel. They make clear how his nature’s underlying optimism enabled him to survive on the throne and maintain governments’ trust despite such miscalculations as casting his lot with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. They conclude that Hussein, despite his flaws, was a leader with his people’s best interests at heat.
“Hussein was well aware of his own weaknesses as well as his strengths,” Ashton writes. “Although he was at his best in a crisis, he was less well suited to framing a longer-term strategy. His attention span was short and he often lost interest in affairs of state once the point of crisis had been passed. Finally, the King was overwhelmingly a practical man, with little time for intellectual theorizing. More than just a realist, he was also an idealist. In the final years of his life, he spoke increasingly of the need to forge peace between what he termed ‘the children of Abraham,’ a quasi-religious formulation that also reflected his fundamental belief in the leadership role of his family, the Hashemites.”
Surprisingly, neither book mentions his well-known attempt to gauge public opinion by donning disguises (usually a taxi driver’s) and mingling with the masses, a practice followed by his successor, King Abdullah (who fancies more elaborate disguises).
Hussein’s story from 1953 to 1999 was largely the story of clandestine relations between the Hashemite Kingdom and the Jewish state, hundreds of secret meetings conducted in Israel, Jordan and London between the king and prime ministers and their surrogates. When Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994, the two nations — at the leadership level, at least — knew each other well.
“He felt,” Shlaim writes, “that if he was to be in a position of responsibility, next door to Israel, he had to know what he was dealing with. He had to explore, to find out what the thinking was on the other side.”
Hussein, both authors make clear, followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, King Abdullah, who was assassinated in 1948 in Jerusalem, young Hussein at his side. Abdullah, at the cost of his life, recognized the viability of his Zionist neighbor and also took part in secret negotiations with the leaders of the newborn Jewish state.
“Abdullah’s role in the war for Palestine during 1948-49 remains hotly contested. It has a special importance in understanding both his legacy to his grandson Hussein and Hussein’s own subsequent conduct of relations with the state of Israel,” Ashton writes. “Unlike many of his Arab contemporaries ... Abdullah seems to have had a realistic respect for the strength of the Jewish forces, and a corresponding recognition of the weaknesses and division evident in the Arab camp.
“In Hussein’s subsequent negotiations with Israeli leaders,” Ashton continues, “there are echoes of the dilemma which Abdullah had faced. On the one hand Hussein came to see it as part of his Hashemite destiny to bring together” the opposing factions that broke out in warfare once a decade. “For Hussein, the forging of an historical reconciliation between Arab and Jew was part of his family’s destiny, and the first essential step in achieving it was to empathize with those on the other side. Hussein believed that peace could not be made with Israel without understanding the historical tragedy of the Jewish people, and that in order to heal the scars this had left behind one had to be prepared to offer endless reassurance.
“On the other hand,” Ashton writes, “he was well aware, both from his grandfather’s and his own experience, that Israeli leaders were hostile and inflexible on the subject of the acquisition and retention of land.”
The peace treaty Jordan signed with Israel still holds. Hussein’s legacy, as shown by Shlaim and Ashton, is borne by his son. The influence of the man who became king as a teenager and grew into an elder statesman is as evident today as was his image was on Jordan’s dinar bills.