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An Unlikely King: Hussein in War and Peace | The Nation

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An Unlikely King: Hussein in War and Peace

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AP ImagesKing Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

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Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai lives in Jerusalem and New Hampshire. He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an...

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The difficulty this formidable biography had to overcome was that its subject's majesty and the kingdom he ruled were both, let us say, unlikely. The story of a desert prince whose grandfather was an intrepid king but whose father, the heir apparent, was mad--a prince who had been roughed up by tribal discipline and groomed in British public schools, who ascended his throne at 17 after his grandfather, his liege and mentor, was murdered before his eyes--would have quickened any reader of Kipling. But this was 1953, a little late for Hussein bin-Talal, the man who would be king, to bring the glow of Victorian monarchy to Bedouin tents. The previous year King Farouk had been overthrown in Egypt during the July 23 revolution; princes were going to Monte Carlo to look for starlets. And what was Jordan? Imagine the desert left over after imperial powers and stronger monarchs had carved up the region, a country that had recently conquered new lands west of the Jordan River, lands that happened to include the most contested holy city in history and, therefore, a million people who hated their conqueror's guts.

There are three ways for the biographer, Avi Shlaim, to meet this challenge: one, create a vivid portrait of a youth who, maturing through dangerous tests, positioned himself more or less heroically among shifting allies and enemies; two, show how his force of personality, staying power and progressive spirit gave legitimacy to an artificial country and even engendered a kind of civil society; and finally, prove that his moral balance contributed positively to the much larger story into which he was swept up--in this case, a fatal regional conflict that threatened himself and his neighbors. Shlaim has neglected the second, but he's made a compassionate attempt at the first and succeeded brilliantly at the third, so we gain a fairly complete diplomatic history of the Middle East through his subject's eyes. That may be enough for any one book.

The Emirate of Transjordan, Shlaim writes, had been created in 1923 by the "stroke of [Churchill's] pen," a wasteland with nothing but a railway stop of a town between Damascus and Medina, the ancient Philadelphia, now Amman. "Bounded by the valley of the Yarmouk on the north, by the Arabian Desert on the east, by the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and Wadi Araba on the west," Shlaim explains, "it had no outlet to the sea until Abdullah grabbed Ma'an and Aqaba from the expiring kingdom of the Hijaz," the vast desert lands around Mecca and Medina, in 1925.

The Abdullah in question was the older middle son of Emir Hussein bin-Ali--the presumptive descendant of the Prophet--who was Sharif of Mecca at the beginning of World War I. Sir Henry McMahon, the high commissioner in Egypt, arguably promised Emir Hussein an independent Arab kingdom (and Muslim caliphate) from the Persian Gulf to Damascus if he and his sons rose against Ottoman rule--which they arguably did, in desultory guerrilla raids, famously supported by T.E. Lawrence, as the war turned in Britain's favor. Behind the emir's back, however, the British and French secretly concluded the Sykes-Picot Agreement, projecting east-to-west spheres of influence for each great power: Damascus to Beirut for France, Baghdad to Jaffa for Britain. Once the war ended, they secured League of Nations mandates over hinterlands attaching to these cities--the French in "Lebanon," the British in "Palestine"--and drew up the rest of the weird borders we know today.

Though betrayed, the Hashemites were not entirely denied. By 1920 Emir Hussein had elevated himself to kingship in the Hijaz, while Abdullah seemed headed for the newly created "Iraq." The center ring, however, was Damascus, where Faisal--younger than Abdullah but outranking him as the military commander--tried to assert his rule. Faisal had marched into the city with British forces in 1918. But he soon came to seem the champion of self-determination by a Syrian national elite opposed to great-power designs; by the end of 1920, Faisal had pretty much alienated all sides and was summarily expelled by the French.

The British too obviously acquiesced in this act, raising Hashemite suspicions of a conspiracy, which of course there was. So the clan turned around and installed Faisal in Iraq, permanently bumping Abdullah to Transjordan--itself hived off from Palestine and thus requiring Churchill's pen. Things turned disastrous for the Hashemites when the Wahhabist Ibn-Saud drove Emir Hussein from his kingdom of the Hijaz (albeit without Aqaba) in 1925. We are still on the eighteenth of 723 pages.

Jordan was thus distinguished by not being Palestine, where the British governed and made room for Zionist colonists; not Saudi Arabia, newly formed by a militant enemy clan; not Syria, whose French masters and disappointed bourgeois nationalists rejected Hashemite pretensions; and not Iraq, the commanding brother's consolation prize. Abdullah, according to one British official, was "much too big a cock for so small a dunghill" and continued to harbor dreams of a Hashemite resurgence in Greater Syria. At first, Syrian enemies of French rule descended on Amman. But it soon became clear that, to preserve his rule, Abdullah would rely on a British-trained force and £60,000 a year to fund his administration. He toed the line until the end of World War II.

Abdullah finally saw an opening. Jordan gained independence in 1946, and he cast his eye on turbulent Palestine; the land meant Jerusalem and a potential outlet to the Mediterranean. He coolly offered the Zionists autonomy under Hashemite rule and secretly met with Golda Meir in 1947. After the Holocaust, with the Haganah gaining strength, the offer was hardly taken seriously. But Abdullah's luck changed in 1948, when the first Arab-Israeli war gave him a pretext to bring his British-trained Arab Legion across the Jordan River. He quickly moved to annex Arab cities and parts of Jerusalem, including the Old City and Noble Sanctuary.

Such was the wobbly, if united, kingdom that Hussein inherited in 1953. Its jewel--the city where his divine ancestor was believed to have ascended to heaven--came with an enraged population, including more than 200,000 refugees from Israel's coastal plain, people who nursed the fierce conviction that the Hashemites were lackeys of the same imperialism that had enabled the Zionists to flood their land. Most Palestinians had been unready for the modernization that was being thrust upon them; in the 1930s, peasants had been dispossessed as much by the steady rationalization of their tiny land holdings as by Zionist purchases. Yet progressive urban types were even less likely than peasants to be impressed by the rites of passage of Hashemite princes. Not surprisingly, it was a Palestinian nationalist who shot Abdullah on the steps of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the summer of 1951, as his grandson watched in horror. Talal, Hussein's depressive father, became king but proved unfit. A year later Hussein replaced him, and our story really begins.

The power plays the young king soon found himself executing could hardly have been more lethal or, for a novice strongman, more labyrinthine. By age 21, he had positioned himself between the Soviet bloc and American "interests," British imperialism and anti-British pan-Arabism, Israeli military power and Palestinian insurgents, an Egyptian officer's regime and a Syrian version, Hashemite relatives in Iraq (who sustained the blood feud with the heirs of Ibn-Saud) and the promise of Saudi Arabian patronage. He balanced socialism and oil wealth, the claims of democracy and the need for stability, Western cultural influence and the Islamist Hashemite "legacy," relatives and retainers, the need to be loved and the need to be feared. He insisted on Jordanian independence against Iraqi Hashemite claims to eventual union. He weighed the hardfisted policies of his loyal Bedouin guard against his hope to ingratiate himself with his Palestinian subjects. Even his choice of wives--the second was English; the third, Palestinian--suggested strategy.

And there was not a moment when Hussein was not in crisis: Palestinian insurgents; retaliations from Israel; failed experiments in constitutional monarchy; tensions with Egypt's President Nasser, whom the Palestinians revered; even tensions with Britain over his firing of Sir John Glubb, erstwhile commander of Jordan's army. The Suez war exploded in the fall of 1956, exposing collusion between Israel and Hussein's British sponsor. By the fall of 1958 Hussein was playing the Baathist regime in Iraq, which killed his favorite cousin, against the one in Syria, which seemed eager to kill him, and the power of both against Nasser's more restrained brand of socialist pan-Arabism, which Palestinians generally counted on.

Hussein survived, Shlaim writes, by harmonizing "ideology and pragmatism"--a rather lofty way to characterize how he'd pose as the scion of the Arab awakening yet strike as the client of the Western powers. Shlaim details every move, much like a crime reporter covering an interminable gang war, marveling at the young boss's ability to play for a draw or make his own luck. While reading the first few chapters, I thought to keep track of the assassination attempts--and gave up. But we never really learn what made this man tick; Shlaim has not written that kind of biography. He writes that Hussein was humane and exhibited "exceptionally gracious manners." Mostly, we see him absorbed by treachery and pre-emption; we find ourselves pulling for him because we like his cleverness, brass and family loyalty--the way we pull for Michael Corleone.

You'd expect a survivor like this to keep his cool. Yet Shlaim shows that Hussein was something of a hothead back then: he "tended to wait upon events, to rely on intuition and sharp political instincts, and to make decisions on the hoof. There was also something of the gambler in him." The jackpot remained Jerusalem, which Hussein nearly lost in the 1950s. Were it not for his elected prime minister, the Palestinian Suleiman Nabulsi, who restrained the somewhat too glorious young king during the Suez crisis, Jordan would have attacked Israel from the West Bank, and that would have been that. Then again, Hussein's boldness also served him. After Suez, he realized he might lose Jerusalem--and the rest of his kingdom--to the "leftist" Nabulsi, who began to suggest the idea of a federation with Nasser. So Hussein staged a royal coup against Nabulsi in the spring of 1957, rallying his army in a series of gutsy encounters with potentially mutinous officers. This was the moment Hussein came into his own, shaping, if not quite securing, the Jordanian regime as we know it.

Hussein would then show up at Arab League conferences, voting for the consensus but piloting his own jet, subtly reminding the others of his RAF training. He didn't criticize, but politely refused to join, Nasser's abortive United Arab Republic. He'd shop for arms in Washington and London, and for clothes only in London. There he would also visit his Jewish doctor, Emmanuel Herbert, and secretly meet with Israeli officials (Shlaim especially documents the meetings with Ambassador Yaakov Herzog). You keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Ultimately, however, decisions made "on the hoof" go terribly wrong. In the fall of 1966 Palestinian guerrillas killed three Israeli soldiers, and Jordan suffered an unusually fierce retaliation at Samua. In the spring of 1967 Syria exchanged fire with Israel over the headwaters of the Jordan. Nasser pre-emptively closed the Straits of Tiran. Stampeded, Hussein joined an all-sided siege of Israel. He allowed Iraqi troops on his soil and put his army under Egyptian command. Finally--duped by fraudulent Egyptian intelligence--he joined the war on June 5, lobbing artillery shells into Israeli Jerusalem.

Hussein, Shlaim writes, never truly recovered from losing East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. But 1967 was also the acid test that proved the resiliency of what Hussein had already achieved. Hundreds of thousands of new refugees poured into the East Bank from the West. And yet the regime held: the monarchy, the army, the system of patronage, the rule of law. "This is not a country," Shlaim quotes a British diplomat from an earlier time as saying, "but a geographical monument to the courage of one young man."

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