AMMAN -- As the fruitless meeting of U.S. and Iraqi foreign ministers in Geneva brought the Persian Gulf one step closer to war, the focus of fear here in Jordan was on Moslem fundamentalism and Palestinian extremism but most of all on Israel.
That sets the stage for mounting tragedy in Jordan, even though King Hussein is the most moderate Arab leader and has been the West's closest friend for almost a half century. He and his kingdom could become the innocent victim caught between Saddam Hussein's expansionism and George Bush's determination for a new world order.
The king last week finished deploying his tough little army in defensive positions along the rugged ridge line on the east bank of the Jordan River. If Israel is sucked into war with Iraq, its forces may be drawn across the river boundary into Jordan by an out-of-control Palestinian intifada and demands for a "security zone" on the river's east bank.
King Hussein makes no such dire predictions. But the frightening uncertainty in his kingdom -- the country that infuriated President Bush by spurning his coalition against Saddam Hussein -- centers on Israel. Israel's military has a record of tactical and strategic brilliance in open-field running.
"This war would be different than any in history," a political source said. No prediction is possible as to its course, he added, from out-of-control conflagration in Kuwait's oil fields to a region-wide political upheaval.
Although Western diplomats downgrade the likelihood of Israeli moves into Jordan, they agree that plots to destabilize this country are likely being hatched in Israel. "There will be complete curfews on the West Bank, a kind of martial law, if war starts," one diplomat said. Such Draconian controls could have a spillover effect, emboldening Jordan's Palestinians -- more than half the population -- to take the risk of revenge.
Israel is on notice that no military move onto Jordan's soil or into its airspace can be tolerated. If Israel is the target of Iraqi missiles, this would rule out retaliation by Israeli aircraft unless they avoided overflight. "Our planes would definitely intercept theirs," an adviser to the king told us.
But Israel does not pose the only trouble for Jordan. The king also would face multiple political challenges of higher intensity than any other non-combatant, starting with the fanatical Moslem Brotherhood.
In an adroit political switch to give more authority than ever before to Moslem fundamentalists, King Hussein shook up his cabinet last week. He added five religious leaders, all with strong links to the brotherhood.
But sources believe this unprecedented handing of authority to religious activists falls far short of a real power shift. One new cabinet member is a former army officer. Three are highly regarded professors. One has been in parliament for 25 years. Clearly, these are not Khomeini-style mullahs.
Concern about rampant religiosity is bound directly to the Persian Gulf. If war comes and Saddam Hussein is toppled -- or if Iraq suffers thousands of casualties at the hands of the "infidel" -- fundamentalism will surge under the shock effect. That could be devastating to the king's regime despite his own personal popularity.
The fate of Jordan as it tries to cushion the adversities of a Gulf war is at least indirectly tied to the course taken by George Bush. At Kennebunkport last August, Bush held out the promise of multibillion-dollar aid to compensate Jordan for becoming an economic wasteland as a result of sanctions against Saddam Hussein. The king changed the subject from money to the message that had brought him to Maine: war could have disastrous results for the United States in and far beyond the Mideast.
Since that was not a message the president wanted to hear, he set aside his promise of financial aid. Accordingly, Jordan in fact has become an economic wasteland. That is one more reason speculation is rising here that Jordan will not emerge from the Gulf crisis nearly as healthy as it went in. Whoever the clear winners and losers in a Gulf war are, King Hussein and his kingdom figure to be the victims.