The following is an adaptation of an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal European Edition on Monday, January 25, 1999.
One might question the wisdom of the Clinton Administration’s ongoing attempts to secure Yasser Arafat a Palestinian state in the territory occupied by Israel after the 1967 war. But any policy that also advances his interests in neighboring Jordan must be regarded as dangerous. If recent reports coming out of the Arab world have any basis, some within the Clinton administration might have allowed themselves to be ensnared into doing precisely that and sowing uncertainty over who will rule Jordan after King Hussein.
King Hussein returned home Tuesday from a half-year stay in the United States for cancer treatment. Within a week, he suddenly and unexpectedly removed his brother, Hassan bin Talal, as Crown Princea status which he held for more than 30 years. It was a messy process. For a week, Amman was gripped by confusion and uncertainty. At first, royal officials gave only limited indications that Hassan’s assumption of the throne was endangered. Then, the king failed to endorse Hassan in a CNN interview and excluded him in a meeting with Bahrain and Dubai’s crown princes according to established protocol. Finally, just before dawn on January 26, a short statement was read on Jordanian radio announcing that not only had Hussein appointed his eldest son, Prince Abdallah, as the new crown prince, but that Hassan and his aides were removed because of serious offenses, including trying to purge the army of loyal officers and replace them with his own, and engaging in corruption and scandals, including administering expired vaccines to children.1 These charges were striking. Never in his 35 years of being crown prince, nor in his half year of being regent, was Hassan known for anything other than fierce loyalty to his brother and energetic opposition to corruption in the kingdom. In part, his attack on corruption may explain his downfall.
For years, many in Jordan opposed Hassan’s eventual enthronement. These opponents include supporters of Syria, Saddam Hussein, and particularly the PLO–all three of which identify Hassan with policies they fear. It also includes those benefitting from the structure of corruption which, unfortunately, still plays a large role in Jordanian business and which is tied to the interests of some of Jordan’s neighbors. In addition, numerous elements in the royal family itself, for self-interested reasons, have long seen their own fortunes tied to the crowning of other candidates. The question is whether the United States might have allowed itself to be dragged into these squabbles in dangerous ways.
As early as August, Arab papers reported that American officials were quite anxious about Hassan’s regency and eventual succession.2 They believed that Hassan, since his designation as crown prince in 1965, led a “hard line” camp against the Palestinians, who form the majority of Jordanian citizens. In fact, they saw him as pushing Hussein into the 1970 confrontation with the PLO. They fear that Hassan’s lack of harmony with the kingdom’s “demographic realities” could lead either to internal unrest or to Palestinian capital flight. Much of Jordan’s financial structure is controlled by a few Palestinian families, such as the al-Masris, who are linked to Arafat. They also feared that Hassan would have to rely on Islamic fundamentalists to survive. The administration shared its fears with the Israelis. According to Israeli papers, in an October 14 meeting with Israeli foreign minister Sharon and prime minister Netanyahu, Clinton “expressed grave concern” over Jordan’s stability after Hassan takes over.3
According to articles in the Arab press, before Christmas an American National Security Council official traveled to Hussein’s hospital bed in the United States to suggest that Prince Hamzah, Hussein’s and Queen Nur’s son, rather than Hassan, be crown prince.4 They tried to reassure Hussein that the problem of Hamzah’s youth could be overcome through American security assistance and financial aid to the Kingdom. According to some reports, American officials were encouraged by Hussein’s wife, Queen Nur, to press her husband. Arab papers report that also others within Jordan have been agitating for a similar change. And now newspapers in Amman draw attention to the symbolic significance of allowing only the powerful chief of Jordanian general intelligence, Samih al-Batikhi, to attend the meeting between King Hussein and Clinton on the eve of Hussein’s return.5 Mr. Batikhi is not among Hassan’s supporters. Both Jordan’s Prime Minister, as well as the chief of the Royal Hashemite Court, were not allowed to attend the meeting in which the issue of succession was reported to have topped the agenda.6
Palestinian papers describe Batikhi’s role as central. Not only did Batikhi accompany Hussein to meet Clinton alone on January 5, but he also visited Hussein at the Mayo Clinic over eighty times in the last half year. He also flew with Hussein back from the United States to London and January 6, where Hussein and Batikhi met with Prime Minster Blair and Foreign Minister Cook and then back to Amman, where he was televised alongside Hussein emerging from the plan at that pivotal moment. These papers also report that Batikhi will be named the new prime minister of Jordan within the next few weeks.7
This January 5 Hussein/Clinton meeting appears to be the turning point. In an interview, just days before, Hussein emphatically and quickly dismissed rumors that he intended to remove his brother as crown prince. And, according to Arab papers, he bristled at the NSC official’s suggestion during his pre-Christmas meeting to oust Hassan and crown Hamzah–at which point his wife Nur intervened and asked him to defer his decision to retain Hassan.8 The tone changed dramatically after the January 5 Clinton-Hussein meeting. By January 8, detailed articles appeared in Arab papers explaining not only that Hussein had changed his mind, but explaining the circumstances that led to the change and the sequence of events that would follow–a sequence that hitherto came true to everyone’s surprise a week later.
It is important to understand the agenda of Hassan’s opponents. Despite American skepticism, Hassan is known for his concern for Palestinians and his eagerness to escort foreign dignitaries around abysmal refugee camps in the hopes of securing assistance for them. But Hassan is also known to suspect Arafat personally and the PLO more broadly–skepticism born of the bitter experiences of Black September 1970 when he and his family were targets of Arafat’s murderous organization. American concerns that Hassan cannot come to terms with Jordan’s Palestinians blur the distinction in Hassan’s attitudes toward the PLO and his attitude towards Palestinians, suggesting a tendency to see all Palestinian politics uncritically through the PLO’s narrow lens.
The hopes of those opposing Hassan have been recently bolstered by the involvement of American public relations advisor Frank Anderson, engaged by Prince Talal bin Muhammad on behalf of Queen Nur (though in a surprise move of his own, by the end of the week, Talal seemed to distance himself from his earlier support for Nur). In an interview to an Israeli newspaper, Mr. Anderson admitted his long ties to the PLO as a former CIA official in Beirut in the 1970s and eventually as the head of the Near East division’s operations branch.9 In that interview, Mr. Anderson still speaks nostalgically and proudly of his ties with one of the deadliest terrorists of the 1960s and 1970s, Hassan Salame, the “Red Prince,” killed by Israel in January 1979 for his role in the Munich Olympic massacre. Mr. Anderson recalls that during the fighting in Black September 1970 (the PLO-Hashemite war to control Jordan), Salame headed Bureau 17 (the precursor of Force 17), the elite PLO unit conducting the most dangerous and deadly missions during the fighting against the Hashemites. Mr. Anderson’s long-time ties to the PLO, and his current affiliation with the anti-Hassan camp, contrast with Hassan’s history with the PLO.
Iraq policy will also be affected. Hassan openly challenged Saddam Hussein and supports the Iraqi opposition. During a televised speech to an Arab Parliamentary Union meeting in late December, he lashed out at Saddam, prompting Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to single him out for condemnation. In contrast, Mr. Anderson has been a vocal opponent of the Iraqi opposition, appearing last year on U.S. television to lambaste plans for a popular insurgency against Saddam, preferring a military coup instead.10 And, according to the Iraqi opposition, chief of intelligence Batikhi was deeply involved in helping the CIA’s ill-fated military coup attempt in Iraq in 1996 against which both they and Hassan strongly warned as ill-conceived and infiltrated. Other powerful forces in Jordan oppose Hassan’s support for the Iraqi opposition because they are either sympathetic to Saddam, or at least believe Jordan must maintain good relations with Iraq regardless of its leader. In the fight against corruption, which has been at the center of Hassan’s domestic agenda, also won Hassan enemies, including the small group of Palestinians, including Sabih al-Masri, who run the bulk of Jordan’s financial structure through the Cairo-Amman bank and are also tied to Iraqi and PLO interests.
Jordan has reached a watershed. Though small, its politics can influence the course of Arab politics by example. Jordan has rested in the last 30 years on a firmer political foundation than the fashionable European ideas of fascism and totalitarianism that have corrupted the region’s other states. During his reign, Hussein asked little of his people and rarely demanded sacrifices–as have Assad, Arafat or Saddam–to pursue personal ideas or grandeur. And its constitutional monarchy had been developing into the Arab world’s first genuine democracy.
Precisely these traits made Jordan a necessary target for the region’s questionable actors. Jordan needs a strong leader to navigate through trying times as it deals with democratization and faces a resurgent Saddam, an emerging PLO entity, and a regional climate as uncertain as any in decades. Despite U.S. reservations over Hassan, he had three decades of experience and knows well who threatens his realm. And his half-year regency was generally considered as competently-run. In fact, there appears to be a split in the US government since some in the US State Department acknowledge that Hassan has ruled Jordan well over the last months while others dismiss his capabilities. It would be a grave misstep if the reports emerging from the Arab world have any basis and some in the Clinton administration indeed allowed the United States to be entangled in the succession process in Jordan and has helped derailed succession to Hassan. This would constitute not only a serious violation of an ally’s sovereignty, but also encourage a dangerous turn for which Jordan, the United States and all our regional allies will pay a heavy price. In fact, it opens the door for dangerous games in Amman–a circumstance that could lead to the collapse of Jordan as we know it.
Dr. Wurmser is research fellow in Middle East Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and has just published “Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein” (AEI Press).
1Jamal Halaby, “King of Jordan Names Son Heir,” Associated Press Wire Service, January 26, 1999.
2Said al-Qaysi, “Jordan: Report Views Post-Husayn Developments,” Al-Watan al-Arabi, August 28, 1998.
3Shimon Schiffer and Nahum Barnea, “US Reportedly Discusses Post-Husayn Era with Israel,” Yediot Aharonot, October 18, 1998.
4Walid Abu Dhahr, “US Favors Hamzah to Succeed King Husayn,” Al-Watan al-Arabi, January 8, 1999.
5“King Hussein’s Return Surrounded by Speculation, Debate,” Al-Majd, January 11, 1999.
6Walid Abu Dhahr, “US Favors Hamzah.”
7Al-Hayat al-Jadida, January 24, 1999.
8Walid Abu Dhahr, “US Favors Hamzah.”
9David Makovsky, “The Secret CIA-PLO Channel: An Interview with Frank Anderson,” Haaretz, November 10, 1998.
10“The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” McNeil/Lehrer Productions, November 25, 1998.