In two weeks, on February 14th, President Obama and King Abdullah II of Jordan will meet in Rancho Mirage, California. A more aptly named meeting place could not have been intentionally picked. US policy toward the region of the Middle East has been so confused and muddled by this administration that a desert mirage best describes the divergence between the facts and the political fiction. The facts are these: Syrian policy has been an unmitigated disaster; the president fiddled while the democratic opposition has burned; the complete US withdrawal from Iraq has crippled any chance for a functioning inter-sectarian democracy, spreading the Syrian civil war eastward; the Iranian nuclear negotiations have allowed the Tehran leadership to believe that nuclear enrichment and the bulk of its weapons program will be allowed in any comprehensive deal, while the sanctions regime quickly unravels; and finally, the pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation in the face of such a regional turmoil has in reality set back the peace process by once again confirming that Washington only accepts the untenable “Oslo option” on the West Bank.
The administration’s great mirage has essentially been the idea that the US can control events in the Middle East if only the Iranians would learn to cooperate with the West. In other words, the US has been in the process of the semi-abandonment of its traditional allies. They have done this in the vain hope that Iran would roll back its support for nuclear weapons, Hamas and PLO rejection politics, Assad, Hezbollah, and al Maliki’s anti-democratic, anti-Sunni crusade. Like a man lost in the desert without water, Obama can see the gentle pools of moisture straight ahead. But the only things that really lie ahead are miles and miles of more hot sand. That’s where King Abdullah comes into the picture. Obama won’t listen to Netanyahu. In the president’s mind (influenced by twenty years of far-left propaganda) the PM represents the “untouchables” of the hated Israeli right wing. But Jordan has always been the darling of the Anglo-Saxon world. As an absolute monarchy whose very kingdom has been semi-British and whose so-called moderation has been the stuff of legend, the Jordanian royal family has always had the unqualified support of London and Washington. As if the Hashemites were an Arab family from an English estate, the US government (especially the State Department and CIA) has loved everything Jordanian. Congress has felt the same affection. In fact, the Jordanian monarchy has become the only near dictatorship (read the report by Freedom House) beloved by the US government.
But does the Hashemite king have the courage to burst Obama’s bubble? One can only wonder. Abdullah is besieged on all sides. His economy has been a shambles as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have continued to migrate into his kingdom. Many of these refugees have fled into northern Jordanian cities, where they have brought down the real wages of Jordanians by working cheaply.
Meanwhile, his budgetary subsidy regime has come under intense scrutiny by the IMF, whose loans he depends on. East Bankers have feared Palestinian control of business and the economy. And Palestinians have demanded a greater role in the apparatus of government.
Unfortunately, like in Egypt, there don’t seem to be enough jobs for the population. Syria had the same problem just before its eruption.
Also, Jordan has antagonized Assad by its cooperation with Saudi Arabia on clandestine support for the opposition in Syria. If Assad manages to hold on to power, Iranian-Syrian-Palestinian pressure on the Hashemite regime could only intensify. Recently, a high level Palestinian official, Jibril Rajoub, visited Tehran and spoke of far greater Iranian-Palestinian cooperation in the future. Fatah and Hamas could bring the region to a boiling point if a tilt toward Iran meant further chaos on both banks of the Jordan River. The two Palestinian factions could also engender political havoc if the extreme Syrian Islamist opposition were to come into power, somehow replacing Assad. In that case, the Muslim Brotherhood’s pressure on King Abdullah could become acute.
So what will the conversation at Rancho Mirage consist of? On Syria, all roads lead to continued stalemate. Assad most likely will continue to hold the south and the west of the country. A defacto partition of Syria has become a distinct possibility. The king must tell the president that his current policy on Geneva II has no future. It has simply become unrealistic. The negotiations on the transitional authority have bogged down after one short week, and the prospects for an Assad agreement to step aside (without acute pressure) are nil. Obama will most likely ask for an alternative or an adjunct to the present policy. In all likelihood, the king would press for greater US military involvement (weapons only) with the secular liberals and the Free Syrian Army. However, it’s a near certainty that the king would want to keep his advice quiet, for there are many in his own kingdom who are also pressing for a liberal constitutional alternative to absolute rule.
But what if the president asks the king for a deeper, more detailed strategy on Syria? Does the king have an answer other than a tactical one, i.e. weapons support? Some leading US analysts estimate that it will take at least one hundred billion dollars in hard cash to defeat Assad. At this point Saudi Arabia has perhaps committed a mere three billion, maybe even less. Obama doesn’t have access to that kind of money.
The king will be hard-pressed to come up with an answer. It’s a certainty that Abdullah doesn’t believe in the fantasy about a moderate Iran in alignment with Western interests. But will the king be brutally honest, like Bibi? It’s hard to say. If the king were really shrewd, like his father, he’d simply tell the president that in order to move the ball forward on both Syria and Iran, the US must have Russian help. There is no other solution. Putin has placed himself at the very heart of the game. And for whatever reason (there will be US concessions, for sure), Putin cannot be as easily dismissed as Obama would like.
However, to push Iran into an absolute corner on its nuclear program and total regional agenda would require a complete reformulation of policy by all members of the Security Council, Israel, Jordan and the Gulf states. It is doubtful that any of this will come up in conversation at Rancho Mirage. But, hopefully, the king understands that the status quo cannot hold and that sooner or later, Obama’s mirage will be exposed. The clock is ticking on a regional war that would involve everyone. In order for this major war (perhaps broader and more economically punishing than even the Iran-Iraq war) to be avoided, the king needs to tell the president the truth. That is, if the present king is as shrewd as his father was.
Here’s the truth that King Hussein would understand. First, the US and Jordan must admit that the idea of an independent West Bank state has become a false paradigm. Iran and the Palestinians have become tacit allies, and without a regional solution to the Shiite crescent, Israel, Jordan and the Gulf states have been put in jeopardy. Second, in order to establish the complete rollback of the Iranian nuclear program (total dismantlement), Israel must concede to a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Third, an Israeli conventional deterrence in such a zone (nuclear-weapons free) must require a permanent conventional military presence in the Jordan River Valley. Fourth, the solution to regional hegemony is a zone of anti-hegemony. Fifth, Israel and a free Jordan (either a constitutional monarchy on the British model or a republic) must work for peace. The final status of the territories could be to confederate Jerusalem and the West Bank in a permanent condominium. This could be done in conjunction with Jordan or independently, depending on the will of the people. Sixth, the Obama administration must stand up for American democratic principles because the Arab people demand a system which can overcome all ethnic, sectarian and authoritarian impulses. Seventh, foreign forces should not be stationed on the waters adjacent to, or on, any of the lands of the Middle East. Eighth, the age of the sole superpower is over, and in order not to slide into anarchy, the members of the UN Security Council must fill the void.
The Arab world needs a democratic champion. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt have all failed. Yemen and Tunisia are too small. Libya has approached a failed-state status. Bahrain is a US naval base. Yet this region and its myriad of peoples require citizenship, freedom and the rule of law. Economic progress will not be possible without political modernization, and economic progress is essential. The voice of the people must be heard. If Islam truly stands for peace, then the peaceful transference of power in a democratic state is an Islamic value. King Abdullah of Jordan does not need to be reminded of these values. He has traveled extensively in the US. He has gone to school here. His family has been allies and friends of the American people since before he was born. Moreover, he is a Muslim and he understands that G-d’s will is far greater than his own. His destiny awaits, as does the political legacy of the first US president of African-American heritage, Barack Obama. I pray that the meeting at Rancho Mirage between the president and the king will become an oasis of truth. The future of the Middle East awaits its champions.