THE UNITED States and Saudi Arabia, once among Jordan's closest allies, are understandably angry at King Hussein for his open expression of sympathy with Iraq. Yet the king is faithfully expressing the feelings of his people, native Jordanians and Palestinian refugees alike. In fact, by giving their sentiments a legitimate political outlet, he may be making it easier to preserve Jordan's military neutrality and its partial compliance with United Nations sanctions against Iraq.
The king is engaged in the kind of high-risk political balancing act that has characterized his 38-year reign, trying to protect his throne from contradictory internal and external pressures. This time, the feat may prove impossible. The Bush administration, facing a dangerous war, has scant patience for what it considers insulting and provocative rhetoric. Yet U.S. interests might well face graver risks if the king lost power to any likely successor.
Hussein's Jordan is not a democracy. But since parliamentary elections in 1989, it has had a more responsive politics than most of its Arab neighbors. Most of the Arab governments opposing Saddam Hussein are entrenched autocracies. Jordan's monarchy, less entrenched and less autocratic, understandably wants to hedge, to align somehow with both sides.
Washington is right to answer Hussein's hostile language with sharp retorts of its own. But it would be foolish to start treating Jordan like an enemy. Under Hussein's successor, Jordan might well become an enemy. Under the king, at least so far, it is not.