President Bush sharpened his criticism of Jordan's King Hussein yesterday, saying the king's condemnation of the U.S.-led war to oust Iraq from Kuwait showed that he has "moved over -- way over" into total support of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Bush, who on Thursday ordered a review of U.S. aid to Jordan, told reporters at the White House that there is "quite some concern" within the administration over "what appears to be a shift in the Jordanian position." Noting that Jordan long had been one of the closest U.S. allies in the Arab world, Bush said, "This complicates things."
Earlier, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater declared that Hussein's remarks in a television speech Wednesday made "quite clear that Jordan has declared allegiance to Iraq." He accused the king of helping Saddam's efforts to inflame Arab public opinion and split the Arab coalition supporting the United States.
Underlying these remarks is concern among U.S. officials that Hussein, by abandoning his professed neutrality for an emotional embrace of Iraq, could get caught inextricably on the losing side of the Persian Gulf War and make it impossible for the United States to help him survive the war's aftershocks.
Since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, the king sought to balance sympathy for Iraq and his long-standing ties to the West. In return, until this week, Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III had shrugged off Jordan's pro-Iraqi actions by arguing that the king's problems -- with a restive domestic constituency as well as with Jordan's more powerful neighbors such as Iraq, Israel and Syria -- required maximum U.S. patience and understanding.
Now, however, Hussein's vehement condemnation of the war against Iraq has brought U.S.-Jordanian relations to perhaps their lowest point ever. U.S. officials, while saying privately that they hope the damage can be repaired, warn that Hussein has stretched the administration's tolerance to the limit and forced it to think seriously about whether it can continue to view Hussein as a force for moderation and stability in the Middle East.
These officials said they believe Hussein's ardent defense of Iraq was dictated primarily by his need to stay in tune with his subjects, most of them Palestinians, who are Saddam's most fervent supporters. But, the officials cautioned, while Hussein might be averting immediate threats by telling his people what they want to hear now, he runs the risk of endangering his long-range control of Jordan.
If the war ends as expected with Iraq the loser militarily and politically, Hussein easily could be dragged down with Saddam. The frustration and anger of his Palestinian subjects could trigger radical turmoil that would overthrow his government or force neighboring Israel to intervene. And, the officials said, because Hussein's support of Iraq has earned the enmity of the other major Arab powers -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria -- they are unlikely to come to his aid and probably would oppose any U.S. efforts to prop up his government.
The frictions came to a head Wednesday when the king, angered by allied air attacks on Jordanian trucks transporting oil from Iraq, made a television speech blasting "the savage and large-scale war against brotherly Iraq" as an attempt to establish "foreign hegemony" over the Middle East.
Jordanian sources said that, in addition to placating his Palestinian subjects, the king was incensed by U.S. charges that he is violating United Nations sanctions by importing Iraqi oil. Jordan has told the United States repeatedly that it is desperately short of fuel, the sources said, but the United States has failed to get Saudi Arabia to send oil to Jordan, leaving Hussein no alternative except to turn to Iraq.
Whatever his motivation, his rhetoric ignored what Jordanian sources acknowledge was a warning delivered privately by Washington several weeks ago that it could tolerate criticism of the United States from the Jordanian populace and parliament but not from the king or his senior advisers. As a result, U.S. officials said, the administration felt it could not allow the speech to go unanswered.
When Baker appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, he ran into a buzzsaw of congressional anger at Hussein. While reminding the committee that the alternatives to Hussein are "not a particularly pretty picture," Baker recommended to Bush that congressional feelings be assuaged by ordering the aid review.
U.S. officials acknowledged that the review is largely a symbolic gesture intended, as one official said, as "a warning shot" rather than something that could cause Jordan serious financial problems. U.S. military and economic aid to Jordan was scaled back from $102 million in fiscal 1990 to $57 million for the current fiscal year. More than $30 million of the funds it was supposed to get this year have been frozen because of the gulf war.
For fiscal 1992, the administration tentatively set Jordan's aid at approximately $30 million in economic assistance and $20 million in military assistance. U.S. officials said these amounts are likely to be cut somewhat as the result of the review decreed by Bush, but they noted that, in any event, U.S. aid cannot begin to meet the enormous financial costs imposed on Jordan by the war.
Of far greater importance is the $6.7 billion tentatively earmarked by the richer members of the anti-Iraq coalition for needy "front-line" states like Jordan. U.S. officials said that the administration's hopes of avoiding a complete rupture make it unlikely that the United States will try to deny Jordan a share.
Similarly, the indications from Amman are that Hussein also wants to preserve the option of improving ties in the future. Sherif Zeid Bin Shaker, one of his chief advisers, and Foreign Minister Taher Masri yesterday denied that the king was considering breaking diplomatic relations or expelling U.S. Ambassador Roger Harrison.
Staff correspondent Nora Boustany in Amman contributed to this report.