WASHINGTON -- At the end, President Clinton publicly prayed for "our King Hussein," and the White House dispatched fighter jets to escort the dying monarch's plane from Minnesota to the Canadian border.
It was a gesture of honor and protection for a statesman who, in U.S. eyes, has assumed the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's role of father figure in the Middle East peace process.
Washington's relationship with Hussein hasn't always been so warm or reverent. But whether a partner or a pain in the neck -- and he could be both -- Hussein has fulfilled America's overriding goal for him: maintaining a stable kingdom in an explosive area.
Needed as a buffer
"What we really wanted him to do was survive," says William Quandt, a veteran scholar of the Middle East who teaches at the University of Virginia. Jordan, he said, "was created by the Brits to be a buffer, and it's no insult to the king to say that's what we wanted him to be."
If Hussein's son and heir, Abdullah, manages the same feat, he will likely get his calls to the Oval Office returned quickly. But as his father's record shows, this won't be easy, and it may at times require sharp disagreements with U.S. presidents.
A key to Hussein's survival strategy has been that "powerful allies are a necessity, but one must keep all options open," the Israeli scholar Uriel Dann wrote. One sign of Hussein's success is that he is dying of natural causes at home, a luxury not afforded many Mideast leaders.
The U.S.-Jordan tie began discreetly in the 1950s when Hussein needed to resist a wave of pan-Arab nationalism, and the United States was looking for anti-Communist allies.
For much of his reign, Hussein lived in relative peace with America's close ally Israel, but he didn't sign a formal peace with the Jewish state until 1994, after Israel reached a breakthrough with the Palestinians and long after the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement of 1978.
In 1967, compelled to shore up his Arab credentials, Hussein joined Egypt and Syria in their war against Israel. When then-President Lyndon B. Johnson later demanded an explanation,Hussein said he would not have survived otherwise, according to Quandt, who served as a Middle East specialist on the national security staffs of Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Three years later, Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir joined in fending off a threat to Jordan by Syria, giving Hussein rein to crush a Palestinian uprising.
By sitting out the 1973 war, Hussein made himself irrelevant in Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy. Later, Hussein hesitated to join wholeheartedly in Carter's and Ronald Reagan's Arab-Israeli peace efforts.
Show of defiance
A low point in relations between Washington and Amman came in 1990. Just days before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Hussein told President George Bush, "Nothing will happen." Hussein failed to join American efforts to enlist Arab world support against Baghdad.
Growing a beard in an apparent show of anti-Western defiance, Hussein went on television to deliver a bitter tirade against American war plans.
Syria and Egypt drew closer to Washington at Hussein's expense, with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak telling U.S. officials that the king and Saddam Hussein had conspired to divide the spoils of occupation.
But Jordan quickly won forgiveness from Washington after the war by cooperating in a renewed American-led Middle East peace process. Hussein's agreement to form a joint delegation with the Palestinians was crucial in getting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to a peace conference in Madrid.
After cementing his own peace with Israel, Hussein helped President Clinton prevent Israel and the Palestinians from backsliding.
Last October, he arrived at the Wye Plantation on the Eastern Short to exhort Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to bargain. Gaunt from chemotherapy but smiling, he later joined them at a signing ceremony.
If Hussein was less than constant in backing the United States, he could argue the reverse was also true.
"He used to have a file drawer full of written commitments" from American officials, many of which weren't fulfilled, Quandt said. His peace with Israel brought nowhere near the financial reward that the United States showered on Egypt.
Abdullah has yet to show his father's creativity in the peace process. But his inclinations appear to be pro-American. He was educated at Georgetown University and trained at an advanced armor officer's course at Fort Knox, Ky.
Abdullah may be more willing than his father to adopt a tough stance against Iraq, analysts here say. Jordanian diplomats stress that he brings "continuity and stability." That in itself may be enough for Washington.
Pub Date: 2/06/99