Pop quiz: Which Arab ruler is to George W. Bush as Yasser Arafat was to Bill Clinton?
Congratulations if you said King Abdullah of Jordan. And a tip of the hat to all those Iraqis who came up with the answer so fast. You know your neighborhood, and your neighbor.
Abdullah emulates Arafat in possessing special, drop-in-anytime visiting rights to the White House and in merchandising that access to puff up his influence at home and with other Arab leaders. The Jordanian monarch seizes every opportunity to see and be seen with the U.S. president and his senior aides. Rather than attend an Arab summit to support his unconvincing, warmed-over version of a "peace plan" with Israel, Abdullah was again stateside last week, basking in the glow of meetings with Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
And, as Arafat did, Abdullah works against U.S. interests in Iraq and elsewhere while pretending otherwise. The youthful Jordanian autocrat pulls the wool over the eyes of a Republican president as the deceased Palestinian revolutionary did with Bush's Democratic predecessor.
If there is a difference in the comparative equation, it is likely that Clinton distrusted Arafat more. In Abdullah's case, Bush again displays a disturbing tendency to overinvest in the swagger and guile of people who run or who are close to spy agencies. (See Tenet, George, and Putin, Vladimir, for details.)
I stipulate the obvious: Bush is obliged by realpolitik to work with Abdullah and with Jordan. One of only two Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, Jordan has long been an important link in the Middle East peace process as well as a platform for U.S. covert and military activities.
But a few senior U.S. officials, less impressed with Abdullah's Special Operations background and his deep connections to the CIA, fear that the president's lavish embrace is overdone. They point to the nasty public row between Iraq and Jordan over a suicide bombing and to the apparently protected presence in Jordan of key operatives in the Iraqi insurgency. These are troubling signs being ignored by Bush.
Iraqis have not forgotten that Jordan supported Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and afterward. Iraqi resources were drained by the massive breaking of sanctions and other corrupt dealings that enriched the Jordanian establishment at the expense of the Iraqi people.
Abdullah's meddling in Iraqi affairs since the overthrow of the Baathists has rekindled those resentments. The king has exacerbated tensions with his aggressive championing of his co-religionists, Iraq's Sunni minority, who provided the base of past Baathist power and of the present insurgency.
Abdullah publicly warned against the coming to power of Iraq's Shiite majority as he sought to get Bush to postpone the Jan. 30 elections. He has portrayed Iraq on the edge of a religious war. He has channeled support to CIA favorites among Iraqi factions.
So when Iraqis heard on March 14 that the Jordanian family of Raed Banna had thrown a huge party to celebrate their relative's "martyrdom" -- which consisted of killing himself and 125 Iraqis in the Shiite town of Hilla -- they said "enough."
Angry crowds sacked the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad and forced it to close. "Iraqis are feeling very bitter over what happened," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said. Shiite leader Abdul Aziz Hakim called on Jordan to acknowledge "the meanness and lowliness of people who celebrate the killing of honorable Iraqis" and "to stop the incitement, recruitment and mobilization of Jordanian terrorists to Iraq."
Hakim should not hold his breath. Former Baathist lieutenants who are now key operatives in the Iraqi insurgency still move themselves and money around Jordan without interference. In an incident that Bush should probe, U.S. officials a few months ago identified two such Iraqis and asked that they be questioned.
But the king waved the Americans off, saying that the two were minor figures who did not have blood on their hands. "We came to know that wasn't true, as he no doubt knew back then," one U.S. official told me.
Abdullah has publicly suggested that Syria should consider Bush's demand for a withdrawal from Lebanon while privately sharing with other Arab leaders his fears that such a move would be destabilizing. And he has been more supportive of the president's push for democracy in the Arab world in Washington meetings than he has been at home.
This does not win Abdullah the world-class laurels for duplicity and deception garnered by Arafat. But then the king is still young.