AMMAN -- To the west of here is Israel, to the east is Iraq. Jordan, little and ungunned, sits in the middle -- a country of the colonialist imagination and Diktat, without oil, without any other kind of wealth and, until Palestinians came fleeing here, mostly without people. Now, having heard Secretary of State James Baker announce that no progress was made at Geneva, Jordan waits for war. Its role was enunciated by King Hussein's brother, Crown Prince Hassan: "We are the killing ground."
Hassan, interviewed in the Royal Palace as the Geneva talks were in progress, was in an understandably glum mood -- and, incidentally, acting king, since Hussein was out of the country. Like so many other actors in this drama, he seems caught in the vise of events. This war would bring Jordan nothing but disaster. Jordan will not emerge as the leader of the Arab world. It will not increase its territory, and its titular enemy, Israel, is likely to be just where it was when events started: still the muscle man of the Middle East.
But Jordan -- like Iraq and the United States and everyone else involved -- thinks it might have no choice but to join the war. Should Iraq strike at Israel through Jordanian airspace, then Israel might well retaliate -- using the same airspace. In that event, what the crown prince called "our young pilots," on alert since the crisis began in August, will have to challenge Israel. No one has much doubt that they will lose.
But in the view of Hassan and others, Jordan has no choice. As a sovereign nation, it must defend its airspace. As a nation whose population is half Palestinian, it must stand up to Israel. The last time it did that, it lost the West Bank and, of course, East Jerusalem. Hassan was at Oxford when that happened, and for a brief historical moment, he recalls, the Arab students there exulted in the progress of the war. Then came reality and after that depression, which has lasted ever since. "Only now, it is a mood of nihilism," Hassan said.
It's hard to exaggerate the extent of the coming debacle for Jordan. Already, its economy is in shambles. The Saudis have cut off their oil to Jordan. The port of Aqaba is nearly closed on account of the worldwide embargo against Iraq. Thousands of transportation workers have lost their jobs. Jordan itself could be supplied, but it's a little country and not much of a market. Therefore, ships won't risk messing with the United States Navy. Iraq may or may not be suffering from the embargo. Jordan certainly is.
Still worse news is right over the horizon in Iraq: an estimated 2 million potential refugees. This is the figure supplied by the crown prince and possibly something of an exaggeration. But it's certain that war would produce yet another refugee nightmare for Jordan -- a kind of good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that it's not now summer, and the beastly heat will not be a problem. The bad news is that it's winter -- balmy enough weather by day, bitterly cold at night.
The Royal Palace is a good enough place to understand something about Jordan: It has been a nation only on the map. Hassan's office is guarded by soldiers dressed, it would appear, as Russian Cossacks. Actually, they are Circassians, Russian Moslems who emigrated here in the 19th century. The Palestinians make up another population group, and so-called East Bankers -- native Jordanians usually of Bedouin stock -- another. It's for that reason that Jordan has traditionally been seen as an unstable nation with an unstable government.
Oddly, though, the country has been united by anti-Americanism. Saddam Hussein isn't the hero here that he was in August (his treatment of the Kuwaitis and Palestinians living in Kuwait angered Jordanians), but anti-American feeling remains high. Most Jordanians, it seems, can agree that the United States, as the friend of Israel, deserves a good thrashing. The anger, for once, is not directed at King Hussein.
But should war come, no one can predict what will happen to Jordan or, really, what will remain of it. Once the doughty and moderate ally of the United States in this region, it has been roughly treated by Washington for its refusal to join the alliance against Saddam. It feels misunderstood, pushed around and in short, the recipient of what the Crown Prince calls "Jordan bashing." "For God's sake," he implored, "you have to understand the Jordanian position." Washington, it seems, is in no mood to understand.
So Jordan waits. Army units have been sent to the border with Israel, and "the young pilots" wait for their orders. Jordan would like to be the guy in the Western who senses a gunfight coming and moves out of the way. Jordan's problem is that it can't move.