President Barack Obama shakes hands with Jordan’s King Abdullah II during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014.
If you’ve been keeping track of the latest developments in the ongoing battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East, you may or may not have noticed the right wing’s new love affair with King Abdullah II of Jordan. This liaison amoureuse comes in the aftermath of the Sunni extremist group burning a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage and the king ordering more airstrikes and striking a warrior pose in response. Although the incident in itself is horrific, the response to it is nonetheless instructive of how the United States goes about picking allies and how those allies are, in turn, marketed to the American people.
First, a little background material on Abdullah II, Jordan and its U.S. ties: Abdullah II is the son of the late King Hussein I, the third Hashemite monarch of independent Jordan, who forever became known to Western observers as the “plucky little king” after coming to the throne after the assassination of his great-grandfather, King Abdullah I in 1951 and the forced abdication of his father, King Talal, in 1952 for what were reputedly mental health reasons. Young, inexperienced, and nearly murdered by the same assassination that killed his grandfather, at age 16 Hussein was quickly forced to navigate Jordanian, Middle Eastern and Cold War politics or end up like his father and grandfather: dead or out of power.
Remarkably, Hussein managed to do all this through decades of tumultuous events that included wars, revolutions, terrorism, assassinations and the infusion of a huge, angry refugee population from the West Bank. As a new king of a weak state whose people were unsure of his family’s right to rule, Hussein did well. However, he did not do it alone, and from very early on in his reign the king became exceedingly dependent upon the U.S. for the financial lifeline Washington threw the kingdom after young Hussein dismissed the British commander of his armed forces in 1956.
Weak despots make the best friends
Although it might be overly harsh to call Jordan’s King Hussein a U.S. patsy, under his rule Amman became a U.S. client in nearly every sense. True, he did order his forces to attack Israel in 1967, but generally did so reluctantly and for the sake of appearances, lest Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser be left to reap the glory and the political legitimacy if Israel were defeated. As it turned out, Israel crushed the combined Arab armies, and Hussein and Jordan would never again challenge Israel’s nor Washington’s prerogatives in the region.
Indeed, Jordan and its king swiftly came to an understanding with Tel Aviv and Washington: In exchange for not challenging the territorial status quo, Israel and the U.S. would protect the Hashemite monarchy from external pressure while Amman dealt with enemies who also just happened to be Israel’s enemies. This came to a head in 1970 and 1971, when exiled Palestinians and Jordanians loyal to Hussein effectively fought a civil war that threatened Syrian intervention. As Syrian tanks deployed to Jordan’s borders Israeli jets buzzed Syrian troop columns and the U.S. beefed up its naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, signaling to both Syria and its ally, Moscow, that interference in Jordan would not be tolerated.
Hussein survived as a result and became even more indebted to Washington. Worse still, Jordan was indebted to the Israelis, who ever afterward would more or less consistently violate Jordan’s sovereignty whenever it pleased them. This was humiliating, of course, but what mattered to Hussein was that his rule survived and his country remained at peace, and in exchange Washington got a smiling, telegenic Arab leader who could always be counted on to be trotted out to speak the right words in support of whatever it was that Washington wanted. Weak and powerless, Hussein and Jordan had opportunity to do little else.
Smile for the camera!
Fast forward to today and one can more or less see the same dynamic at work — only now a greater number of Arab states have more or less knuckled under to Uncle Sam. This is certainly the case for Egypt, which under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and now Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has used U.S. aid and security assistance to shield corrupt military leadership from democracy and public accountability. What’s even more important, though, is that what Washington gets with el-Sissi and pliant client kings like Abdullah II are Arab faces to front what are essentially U.S. policies: peace with Israel; opposition to Iran; opening up to Western finance and corporate neo-liberalism; the crushing of politicized religion within their borders; and cooperation with U.S. anti-terror policies.
Whether these are good things for the U.S. to aim for in the region is debatable, but they often prove disastrous for the countries involved, as time and again elites in these countries use Washington’s fear of communism, Islamism or whatever the boogey-man du jour happens to be to purchase Washington’s support for their oppressive rule. The inevitable result is that Washington ends up supporting despots that do little in the way to support democracy and that create societies where legitimate opposition gets ignored, crushed, radicalized and so, just as inevitably, turns to just those ideologies and movements that Washington so fears. It’s not just the Middle East, either, as the Cold War and current history are replete with these examples: Marcos in the Philippines; Diem in Vietnam; Batista in Cuba; Somoza in Guatemala; and more recently Karzai in Afghanistan.
What’s worse, in addition to often being counterproductive, dependence on weak despots in troublesome places is often useless when it comes to actually doing something militarily against U.S. enemies. Karzai’s government did little to produce a stable Afghanistan, for instance, while the string of dictators Washington propped up in South Vietnam were patently incapable of doing anything against the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese. Abdullah II is another case in point: Despite all the propaganda talking up Jordan’s warrior king, the reality is that Jordan’s planes were escorted to their targets by U.S. jets and the overwhelming majority of airstrikes on ISIS targets always were and will continue to be carried out by American forces.
Kabuki clients meant for an American audience
The reason for this is simple: Countries like Jordan that usually follow whatever line Washington sets down for them are weak by their very nature. They cannot be anything else, as stronger countries with more effective militaries or other means of power at their disposal are generally strong enough to not have to play the part of a U.S. patsy. Indeed, they can follow their own interests, which are often not in tune with what Washington wants.
This is certainly the case for Turkey, which has a large military and NATO membership, and sees little to gain from intervening against ISIS, who is fighting their enemies the Kurds anyway. Likewise with Saudi Arabia, which is using the Syrian rebellion that spawned ISIS to wage a proxy war against Iran. Thus, the recent trumpeting of Jordan’s response to ISIS should be seen for what it is: political theater for those back home who want to see at least some small modicum of local support for whatever it is Washington wants to do there. That’s crucially important because without this form of window dressing, U.S. efforts in the region can’t be purely fobbed off as imperialism, pure and simple.
Indeed, being able to point to friends who need help is a time-tested tactic of imperialists ever since the empire business got started. It had to be, since no one wants to be painted as the aggressor, and without friends in need, sending in the troops to prop up a given order in a region looks too much like imperial policing or some other form of colonialism. Pliant, weak tyrants are the mask, poorly fitting though it happens to be, that keeps the charade going. That they are good friends only because they are weak and thus useless for anything besides serving as a political prop is beside the point. They are there to play a role; otherwise, Americans might get the dangerous idea that we’re not the good guys.
Thus, what clients like Abdullah II provide is not anything material on the ground or even real legitimacy for U.S. action in the region where they reside. Instead, they serve a psychological need by being the all-important, seemingly independent second party in a two-man confidence trick that helps convince a mark that what the first con man is saying is true.
Here, though, the mark is the American people and the first con man is Washington, which needs to convince a war-weary public that intervention is the right thing to do. Having a brave and telegenic, if altogether fake, warrior king to be seen fighting ISIS serves that purpose because it so perfectly manipulates our own know-nothing, macho right wing. After all, if little Jordan and its plucky little king can fight the big bad bullies, why can’t we?