When King Hussein of Jordan finally came down from the fence, it was on the wrong side. His speech to his people last week was a ringing condemnation of American bombing and Arab partners in the coalition to drive Iraq from Kuwait. He misrepresented the war as against all Arabs and Islam. Then he went on American Sunday television and tried to reclaim his pained neutrality. It didn't work. The days of radically contradictory speeches to different audiences are over. The world has become too small for that.
King Hussein's priorities are his own crown and head. American and even Israeli officials have expressed sympathy for his predicament and dread of a Jordan without him. But keeping King Hussein in power is not the highest American priority for the Middle East. Winning the war and the peace are. He picked what looks like the losing side. This may get him through the next few weeks with his own people. It is likely to haunt him afterward.
The king was sympathetic to President Saddam Hussein of Iraq because Jordan's Palestinians have fallen for Saddam Hussein's demagogy. Yet the Iraqi dictator's denial of legitimacy to Kuwait's monarchy could easily extend to Jordan's. The king must be terrified of his Iraqi friend.
Jordan is suffering from this war. Its trade is knocked for a loop. Its tourism is dead. Its major industries now are probably (A) violating United Nations sanctions against Iraq and (B) hosting the world press corps. American pilots cruising western Iraq have made a point of being unable to tell a mobile Scud from a Jordanian oil tanker. Small wonder the king wanted his people to think he is on Iraq's side.
How smart this is in the longer run depends on the outcome of the war. If Saddam Hussein survives to rule Iraq and play a role in Middle Eastern politics, the king's posture is good insurance -- however cynical. If the Iraqi people overthrow their dictator and throw the world spotlight onto his tyranny and discredit him, the other Arabs who joined Saddam's camp are going to be very uncomfortable and isolated.
King Hussein is a nimble fellow who plays for bigger stakes than the $55 million in 1991 foreign aid that the Bush administration is reconsidering. For his own reason, he has undone decades of close relations with the United States, and must live with the consequences. Contrary to the old axiom, nations have interests and friends. Since he has chosen not to be a friend, he is left to hope his survival will be seen in Washington (as it has in the past) to be in the U.S. interest.