King Hussein of Jordan, feeling enormous political, economic and military pressure as a result of his neighbor Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, sought reassurances and understanding from President Bush that he did not receive during their meeting Thursday, according to sources familiar with the contents of their talks.
"The king was clearly a troubled man," a senior administration official said, "but we did not lighten his burden" during two hours of talks with Bush at the president's summer residence in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Senior administration officials said yesterday they were somewhat encouraged that the Jordanian monarch would deliver on his international obligation to cut one of Iraq's major trading lifelines through the Jordanian port of Aqaba on the Red Sea. Bush said publicly Thursday, after his meeting with the king, that Hussein would indeed enforce the embargo.
But the officials also expressed concern that the king was under intense pressure from the military threat posed to Jordan by Iraq and by the pro-Iraqi political sentiment in his kingdom. Many Jordanians, especially among the majority Palestinian population, feel the strong pull of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's call to war against Israel and foreign intervention.
While Bush had some sympathy for the king, the president was described as unwilling in their conversation to show any flexibility in the U.S. position that Washington expects Hussein to live up to the enforcement provisions of the sanctions.
As Hussein flew back to Amman, U.S. military sources said the Jordanian military had gone to a higher state of alert. One knowledgeable source involved in Arab diplomacy said the king had privately pressed Bush for some form of protection if hostilities break out.
A full account of Bush's private two-hour conversation with the king has not yet emerged. Interviews with a number of U.S. officials and other sources familiar with the Bush-Hussein talks in Kennebunkport provided this information:
The king's trip followed his consultations in Baghdad with Saddam, but the king brought no letter, no peace initiative or other message from the Iraqi leader. Hussein wanted the meeting, as one adviser put it, because "he felt maligned" by Washington. "The sole reason for making this trip was to begin the process of clearing his lines with Bush," the adviser added.
The king arrived in Washington early Wednesday morning and declined a White House offer to meet with senior administration officials in advance of his meeting with Bush. On Thursday, Secretary of States James A. Baker III, flying with Hussein to Maine, raised what would be the central item on the U.S. agenda.
"We insisted that he live up to his commitment to live up to the sanctions," an official said.
Hussein's message was indirect; he talked at length about his efforts to defuse the crisis between Iraq and Kuwait before the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion. He sought to explain the financial pain Kuwait had inflicted on Iraq by driving down the price of oil with excess crude oil shipments into the market.
The king explained the bitter recriminations between Saddam, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd on "who said what to whom" in the final tense days of fitful mediation attempts that preceded the invasion.
But while the king explained the history of Arab summitry, mediation, intrigue and perfidy, Bush and his senior advisers stayed close to the single issue of the monarch's painful choice.
Hussein has talked about finding an Arab-inspired, diplomatic solution to the crisis, but U.S. officials see no likelihood of that. "It's hard to think diplomacy when you're dealing with a guy who can't be trusted," an official said.
Hussein gave Bush his view of the situation in the Persian Gulf and outlined in some detail his particular problems, according to one account. He told Bush that economic sanctions against Iraq are hurting Jordan's already weak economy because the Jordanians get all their oil from Iraq and send most of their exports to Iraq.
Jordan's estimated $900 million a year trade with Iraq represents 25 percent of its gross national product, one U.S. official said.
When he left, Hussein waffled on whether he would shut down the port of Aqaba to Iraqi shipments of food and other materials, calling that "a question of detail." Administration officials said they have some sympathy for his uneasiness, because of the port's importance to Jordan's economy.
"We don't know" if he will enforce the sanctions, an administration official said. "He's so subject to the waves of history and the turn of events there, it's hard to predict."
The administration strategy for now is to keep ships from getting close to Aqaba, thereby preventing Hussein from having to make the tough decisions. That is why, an administration official said, there is such emphasis on voluntary compliance with the sanctions. "Our hope is that he won't be forced to go against the sanctions," the official said.
U.S. officials are pleased with the compliance to date, believing it is unprecedented for sanctions to take hold so quickly and universally. Already the flow of goods into Aqaba has slowed to a trickle. Recognizing some shipments that have gotten into Iraq may be considered legal under the sanctions, the administration is prepared to wait for several weeks before deciding whether there are genuine holes in the net that has been cast around Iraq's economy.
At more than one juncture, Hussein pledged that he opposed Iraq's acquisition of territory by force; that he would not recognize the puppet regime installed in Kuwait and that Jordan would enforce the United Nations sanctions against trade with Iraq and Kuwait.
"I was encouraged," one administration official said, "he's taking steps in our direction -- slowly and grudgingly."
Balz reported from Kennebunkport, Tyler from Washington.