Hussein: A Lifetime Balancing Act
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 1999; Page A14
King Hussein ibn Talal al-Hashem of Jordan, who died yesterday in Amman at the age of 63, was a small, soft-spoken man of modest demeanor who was thrust into a life of fame and danger by multiple accidents of history.
He became a king because Britain created a country for his family to rule, his grandfather was assassinated and his father was driven from the throne by schizophrenia. He lost a good chunk of that country in a war he did not want against a country to which he was not hostile.
Beginning with the assassination of his beloved grandfather, King Abdullah, in 1951, Hussein faced crises of family and nation that might have undone a less dogged person: repeated assassination attempts, deaths in the family, wars, multiple divorces, cancer, exposure as a client of the CIA and public humiliation at an Arab summit conference.
Would-be assassins fired at his plane, machine-gunned his car and poisoned his nose drops. So fragile did his country and his rule appear, in fact, that his autobiography, published in 1962, was titled "Uneasy Lies the Head." And that was before the two greatest challenges he faced the disastrous 1967 war with Israel and the 1970 "Black September" clash with Palestinian forces.
His survival skills were tested every day of his nearly 46-year reign by some of the world's most difficult neighbors Iraq, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians. For a generation, observers of Arab affairs were perpetually astonished to find Hussein still on the throne.
Everyone in the Middle East and in Washington, London and Moscow was furious at Hussein at one time or another, but he proved as skillfully evasive as a hummingbird, always darting to safety just as the pressures of the day seemed about to overwhelm him. Most of his reign was a political high-wire act, and he stayed in power longer than any other Middle East ruler because of his unsurpassed ability to balance the competing pressures on him.
He was shrewd, crafty and opportunistic, as well as amiable. By the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan sought Hussein's support for an abortive Middle East peace initiative, Hussein had made himself as indispensable as he was durable, a respected voice of moderation and statesmanship in a turbulent Arab world. He was one of the few heads of state who could visit Washington whenever they felt like it and assume they would be received by the president of the United States.
When he arose from his hospital bed at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic last October to help salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at the Wye River Plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he was welcomed as the one statesman with sufficient credibility and personal stature to bring the two sides together. Gaunt and bald from chemotherapy, he was a forceful presence all the same. When the talks ended in agreement, President Clinton said the king's "courage, commitment and, frankly, stern instruction at appropriate times were at the heart of this success."
A nearly absolute monarch, Hussein nevertheless displayed a low-key personal style and was thoughtful and courteous with visitors and interviewers, often beginning conversations with self-deprecating jokes about his smoking habit. He was rich but not ostentatious, powerful but not crude, trained as a military officer but skilled as a diplomat, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad but never a zealot.
Even as a teenager, Hussein recalled in "Uneasy Lies the Head," he recognized the fragility of his country and of the Hashemite monarchy and dedicated himself to preserving them through "discipline and hard work."
"I had seen enough of Europe even at 17 to know that its playgrounds were filled with ex-kings, some of whom lost their thrones because they did not understand the duties of a monarch," he wrote. "I was not going to become a permanent member of their swimming parties in the south of France."
Hussein, a pilot, loved jet airplanes, fast cars and pretty women, but he never allowed himself to appear undignified or corrupt. He was an officer and, in the old-fashioned sense, a gentleman. In public, he always appeared unflappable. His calm demeanor belied a life that lurched from crisis to crisis, in which he somehow formed and scrapped alliances, embraced and spurned partners, without appearing unprincipled.
He fought the Palestinians in the Black September campaign of 1970, then supported them when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel that left them out. He alternately courted and defied Syria and Saudi Arabia. He accepted money from the CIA but defied Washington by aligning Jordan with the Arab "rejectionist front" opposed to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. He stayed on good terms with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after Iraq alienated almost everyone else by invading Kuwait in 1990, but then he rebuilt his links to Washington and turned against Saddam Hussein by welcoming members of the Iraqi dictator's family when they defected in 1995.
King Hussein maintained an official state of war with Israel for more than four decades but secretly courted the Israelis and signaled his willingness to live alongside them in peace. It was typical of his calculating style that after years of secret meetings with Israeli leaders and tacit acceptance of the Jewish state, he finally moved publicly toward peace only after the Palestine Liberation Organization had completed its own deal with Israel. If Syria and Saudi Arabia were willing to tolerate that PLO-Israeli agreement, and Egypt was already at peace with Israel, then Hussein reckoned he could finally make a public move and sign a peace treaty without jeopardizing Jordan's security or his own.
Once he made peace, he committed himself to its spirit, endearing himself to Israelis by the sympathy and understanding he displayed when tragedy befell them.
His style was to calculate, evaluate and move cautiously. On the rare occasions when he deviated from that approach it cost him dearly, most notably when he made one catastrophic mistake from which Jordan will never recover: entering the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and losing the West Bank and East Jerusalem in a mismatch, at the cost of Jordan's entire air force and 15,000 troops. Jordan had no real quarrel with Israel, but Hussein argued that any Arab ruler who failed to fight alongside Egypt and Syria in that rout of Arab armies would have been overthrown.
It was another illustration of Hussein's never-ending need to make critical decisions not just on the basis of what was good for Jordan but also on the basis of what his truculent neighbors demanded of him. In balancing those demands, he earned his reputation as the Middle East's ultimate survivor through nimble diplomacy and generally astute decisions about when to take risks and when to hold back.
He survived repeated domestic crises as well, shifting his style from authoritarian to conciliatory and back again as events dictated. The most recent serious challenge to his rule developed in 1996, when price increases dictated by the International Monetary Fund sparked widespread rioting. Hussein deployed the army to crush the riots and suspended the national legislature, but all those arrested were released shortly afterward, and Hussein toured the country to mend fences with regional and tribal leaders.
Hussein was born in Amman, Jordan's capital, on Nov. 14, 1935. Jordan was then a poor, sparsely settled country, ruled by Hussein's grandfather, Abdullah, whom Britain had installed on the throne when the country was carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1921. The Hashemite clan had supported the British against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, in the rebellion organized by T.E. Lawrence, and London rewarded them with the thrones in Baghdad and Amman.
Despite their illustrious history, the Hashemites' circumstances were modest: Hussein recalled in his autobiography that as a boy he had to sell his bicycle to help out in a financial pinch.
The Middle East at the time was a political backwater the Ottoman Empire had been disassembled, Saudi Arabia was not yet a major oil producer, Israel had not yet been born and events in the region were pretty much dictated by Britain and France.
But by the time Hussein was crowned king, in May 1953, the region had been transformed into a hotbed of political ferment and social change by the creation of Israel, the Egyptian revolution, the growing wealth of the Persian Gulf sheikdoms and the rise of Arab nationalism. Hussein's cousin Faisal, the Hashemite king of Iraq, was soon to be overthrown in a bloody nationalist revolution, making the throne in Amman more wobbly still.
King Abdullah arranged for Hussein to attend Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt, then the Arab world's premier secondary school, and Harrow in England, to acquire a thorough grounding in both Arabic and Western cultures. He later spent six months at Sandhurst, the British military academy, in preparation for his coronation.
Still a teenager, Hussein was at Abdullah's side when the king was shot to death at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque in 1951. A bullet from the assassin's gun also struck Hussein but was deflected by a medal on the uniform his grandfather had insisted he wear.
Hussein's father, Talal, became king, but mental illness forced him to abdicate a year later and Hussein was crowned King of Jordan at the age of 17.
As the young, inexperienced king of a weak country, Hussein appeared vulnerable to the rising tide of anti-monarchical Arab nationalism, led by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, that was to bring down his cousin Faisal's rule in Iraq. But in March 1956 Hussein established his firm authority over Jordan, and burnished his own nationalist credentials, by dismissing Sir John Bagot Glubb, the British commander of the Jordanian army, and replacing all the British officers with Jordanians.
His personal life was sometimes as turbulent as his political life. He married four times: first in 1955 to a distant Egyptian cousin whom he divorced a year later; then in 1961 to a British woman, Antoinette Gardiner, whom he divorced in 1972; in 1972 to a Jordanian, Queen Alia, who died in a helicopter crash in 1977; and finally in 1978 to Elizabeth "Lisa" Halaby, an American architect who became Queen Noor.
King Hussein had 11 children. They and Queen Noor survive him.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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