KING Hussein is being eulogized around the world for his role as an Arab-Israeli peacemaker and international statesman. But the king's real legacy, and what explains the outpouring of grief by his own people, is the admirable way he ran his own backyard. The way he played the roles of governor, mayor and even local Bedouin chief is what really set him apart as an Arab leader.
Indeed, as a geopolitician, the king had his shortcomings. He let Nasser and the nationalist euphoria of the Arab street bamboozle him into the 1967 war. He talked himself out of the 1973 war, when he might have actually recaptured part of his lost kingdom from Israel. Then he went over the waterfalls in a rowboat with Saddam Hussein as the Jordanian street pushed him toward an alliance with Iraq in reaction to Israel's crushing of the Palestinian intifada in the West Bank.
When the king finally surfaced from the Iraq fiasco, he swam over to Israel's shores. In fairness, the king's geopolitical do-si-do was partly in the nature of things: his tiny country, sitting at the crossroads of caravan routes and at the hinge of big-power rivalries, was always going to be the plaything of larger forces. But when it came to the game of nation-building, King Hussein deserves to be remembered as an Arab superpower. Jordanians do not care two cents about the peace King Hussein made with the Jews. What they revere him for is the peace he maintained for Jordanians. It may seem like an unfairly simple epitaph, but for my money King Hussein's gravestone should read: "He kept Jordan a nice place to live in a bad neighborhood."
After stomping out a Palestinian guerrilla attempt to take over Jordan in 1970, he established a stable, almost calm equilibrium at home by using his own natural resources with his people. He bought stability with tolerance and integrity, when dinars and dollars just were not available.
In a neighborhood of brutal thugs, he operated with a basic decency. In a neighborhood of teeming, unplanned cities, he maintained clean streets, with stoplights that worked, buses that ran and gardens that grew green. In a neighborhood of anti-democratic regimes, he experimented with real parliamentary politics.
Sure, Jordan is still poor and underdeveloped in many ways. But if you've flown into Jordan from Syria, from Iraq or from Algeria, then you've experienced that sense of exhaling, that feeling of tension flushing out of your body as you drove from the airport into the relaxed Jordanian capital of Amman. No, Jordan wasn't Switzerland, but compared with many of its neighbors, it was an oasis of stability, with deep wells of restraint, in a desert of nastiness.
Yes, other Arab countries around Jordan are stable, too. But their stability was bought wholesale, not retail. In places such as Syria or Iraq, stability was bought by taking away people's freedoms.
King Hussein did it the other way. And that is why his people are crying real tears. The same with people outside the Middle East. It's odd to think how popular Hussein had become in his later years. After all, his past was not uncheckered. I believe it is because King Hussein ignited the same feeling in us that the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin touched. It is the hope that is kindled when we see old men changing. There is something about watching these graybeards standing up, breaking with the past, offering a handshake to a lifelong foe and saying: "Enough. I was wrong. This war is stupid." It keeps alive the idea that anything is possible in politics, even in Middle East politics.
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.
Pub Date: 2/09/99