King Hussein Faces His Mortality

November 17, 1992

Ill with cancer and facing up to his mortality, Jordan's King Hussein is zagging where he zigged. He suggested in recent interviews and a speech to his people that the dictator Saddam Hussein (no kin) had outlived his usefulness to the Iraqi people. Only two years ago, King Hussein upset his patrons and admirers in this country by making common cause with Saddam Hussein against the U.S. He denounced the gulf war. Violating economic sanctions on Iraq was Jordan's best industry.

In reversing course, at least rhetorically, King Hussein has not come to his senses. He is practicing the same survival skills as before. At that game, the long-serving ruler is the best. An unpopular king as the Persian Gulf war began, he expressed the mood of the majority of his country by taking Iraq's side. He bit the American hand that had fed him. To have done otherwise would have been to court overthrow. Now, immensely popular for having taken that position, the Hashemite monarch shows his appreciation of reality in saying what his American benefactors want to hear. No one understands the transient moods of the Arab street better than its rulers.

More to the point, Jordan's delegation at the Middle East peace talks reached agreement on an agenda with Israel. This is not a separate peace. But it is salutary pressure on Syria and on the Palestinian delegation to make honest progress with Israel as well.

King Hussein, now 57, told the world that his country can survive under Crown Prince Hassan, his younger brother, as a constitutional monarch with more democracy than Hussein has ever let it have. The last election produced an Islamic fundamentalist majority in the parliament, which is potentially hostile to the throne as the Palestinian population is potentially hostile to the Bedouin ruling house. The king showed his power by putting two fundamentalist members of parliament on trial for trying to overthrow him (they had charged corruption near the throne). After their sentence to 20 years, he granted them pardon. The message: Hussein is still king.

But the durability of the kingdom depends on regional stability, through fair representation of its people and a stable peace with Israel. If Hussein wants to bequeath that, he needs to accomplish as much of it as possible in his life time, however brief that may be.

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