Abdullah, the king on a mission to prevent war
By Robert Fisk in Beirut
03 August 2002
It's the accent that does it. Middle-English, upper middle- class, a touch of Oxford and Sandhurst, both of which he attended. If only, some Jordanians say, their king spoke Arabic as well as he does English. But King Abdullah of Jordan is improving his fluency in his native language just as he is able to touch the heart of the House of Commons or even a slightly more difficult undertaking, the heart of Tony Blair.
Don't invade Iraq is his message. Don't start yet another war in the region. Stop the first one the one in Palestine before starting a second. Alas, George Bush Jnr doesn't want to know.
There was a telling moment last month when King Abdullah, or Lieutenant-General Abdullah as the Plucky Little King Mark II is in his army, set off for Russia. He had told his prime minister to make clear in his absence that Jordan was not, repeat NOT, going to serve as a launching pad for America's legions in the event of a US-Iraqi war.
As the King met President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, his premier in Amman obeyed the king's orders. No way, he said, would Jordan allow itself to be a jump-off point for an American attack on Iraq. Next day, The New York Times announced on its front page that 250,000 US troops might be used to invade Saddam Hussein's fiefdom. And one of the principal launching points? Why Jordan, of course.
The king, like many other Middle East leaders who are supposed to be America's allies in the region, is growing ever more fearful of the US administration. Dick Cheney's blind, hopeless attempts to garner support among Arabs for an Iraqi war had no effect on Washington's enthusiasm for a "regime change" in Baghdad.
The pro-Israeli advisers around Mr Bush seem to have blinded the American President to the realities of the Middle East. In the eyes of King Abdullah and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, US Middle East policy is Israeli policy. Or vice versa. Which is what President Saddam has been saying for years.
King Abdullah of Jordan might be able to persuade Mr Blair to express his worries about an Iraqi war but Mr Bush will not be dissuaded by a look-alike Englishman even if the King did take a masters at Georgetown. An attack on Iraq may be "somewhat ludicrous" in King Abdullah's eyes but the US President wants that "regime change" and says: "I haven't changed my mind" with a speed that suggests reflection is not a part of the Bush fabric. If Abdullah thought he could rein in the White House, he knows better now.
But Mr Bush might have done better to listen to King Abdullah with a little more attention. For this is a king who probably knows more about armoured warfare than his highly militaristic father, King Hussein, who was Britain's Plucky Little King Mark I. Abdullah trained as a paratrooper in a British armoured brigade and, four years before he died, Hussein appointed his son head of the Jordanian Special Forces, a unit that includes two "counter-terrorism" battalions and an airborne brigade and which trains regularly in desert terrain remarkably similar to the land Americans would have to fight across in western Iraq.
Yet it's a militaristic leader slightly closer to home that worries King Abdullah. Ariel Sharon was among the first to suggest Jordan should be Palestine, and his de facto destruction of the Palestinian Authority, his demand for the exile, if not the life, of Yasser Arafat and his continued Jewish colonisation of Palestinian land makes him the King's most dangerous neighbour.
When Mr Bush was giving further encouragement to Mr Sharon to hit the Palestinians this week expressing his "fury" at the Palestinian bomb that killed seven students at the Hebrew University but merely chiding Israel for "heavy-handedness" when it killed nine children as well as a Hamas leader in Gaza King Abdullah must have drawn in his breath.
His disenchantment with any coup d'้tat was made all too clear this week when he publicly chided his brother Hassan for attending the meeting of Iraqi opposition figures in London. Hassan, of course, was King Hussein's original choice as successor, a decision Hussein changed only days before his death, to the permanent distress of Hassan and the all-too obvious delight of Abdullah. If Hassan thought he could indulge himself in Jordan's foreign affairs (he was regarded as "America's man" in the Jordanian royal family after King Hussein) it was a serious mistake.
For King Abdullah can afford to trust few men. He cannot trust Ariel Sharon, or George Bush. He cannot seriously trust Tony Blair. He can expect little support from President Mubarak or the Saudis, however sympathetic they may be. And in a country where more and more Palestinian citizens of Jordan are asking why the King even maintains a peace treaty with Israel, selling a US-Iraqi war to his own people will be an impossibility. Which is why King Abdullah's throne remains the shakiest in the lop-sided, dictator-rich landscape of the Middle East.