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The King’s False Legacy


You have to wonder about the monarch who is so beloved by American presidents, Henry Kissinger, and the big establishment media. That’s the case with King Hussein of Jordan.

The encomiums got a little extreme. President Clinton somehow learned that this “magnificent man” who “lived his life on a higher plane” was already in paradise. One television correspondent called the Jordanian ruler the “king of peace.” That edged out the Washington Post ‘s laurel, “man of peace.” An unnamed American official called him “the symbol of decency in a region filled with vipers.” Former President George Bush praised him as “a loyal ally for the United States and a visionary advocate of Middle East peace.”

King Hussein was also praised as a man beloved by his (mostly Palestinian) subjects. Only rarely was it pointed out that the height of that devotion came when the king sided with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait.

What is it about this king that has everyone teary-eyed? It’s hard to say. He was a survivor when the odds were placed against him, and for that he won respect from the powerful and their courtiers.

The king also eschewed warmongering and ranting demagoguery, making him a personage of calm in a turbulent part of the world.

But these are superficial traits, all things considered.

King Hussein managed to survive by being on all sides of every issue of his day. Early on he aligned with the United States against the Soviet bloc, then moved the other way before swinging back to the West again. He championed the Palestinian cause, then crushed the Palestinian movement in Jordan before becoming their advocate once more. As noted, he was Saddam’s ally, then his opponent.

It is hard to find any principle underlying the king’s vacillation save one: his wish to keep his kingdom. That policy can’t be attributed to ancient tradition or loyalty to a long-ruling family. Before 1920, there was no Jordan. Ironically, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said that had Jordan not existed, it would have been necessary to invent it. But that’s exactly what Great Britain did at the end of World War I. Winston Churchill bragged that, sitting in a tent in the Arabian desert, he had created Jordan with the stroke of a pen. The British gave the new country to the head of the Hashemite tribe, Hussein’s grandfather Abdullah, as a reward for revolting against the Turks during the war.

As for the king’s being a “man of peace,” that is hard to square with the facts. Egypt made peace with Israel first. The Palestine Liberation Organization followed, in the secret Oslo talks of which King Hussein knew nothing. Jordan didn’t go to the peace table until later, when there was little choice.

And what of the king’s domestic policy? While less brutal than others in the region, King Hussein nevertheless ran a repressive autocratic state, complete with secret police and restrictions on press, speech, and travel. His reputed democratic reforms are what the British newspaper the Independent calls “a parliamentary facade.”

Hussein’s record in domestic economy gets a failing grade. Jordan is the poorest country in the Middle East, with per capita income one-fifteenth that of Israel. Urban unemployment is 40 percent. The nation has long been on the dole. Indeed, when the king died, President Clinton promised to speed up delivery of $300 million for Jordan’s part in the stalled Wye River peace process. Meanwhile, the king lived in luxury.

Fans of King Hussein point out that Jordan does well by Third World standards. But that yardstick implies it is genetically condemned to Third World status. True, Jordan has no oil, but neither does Hong Kong, which long ago demonstrated that you don’t need “natural resources” to get rich.

More important than oil, what Jordanians lack is liberty, secure property rights, and the rule of law limiting government power. Too bad King Hussein didn’t leave a legacy such as that.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.