History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

A photograph of King Hussein, Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, October 1967

King Hussein, Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, October 1967

Image courtesy of The Office of His Majesty King Hussein I of Jordan. Copyright 1998, The Royal Hashemite Court

articles > Cold War on the periphery...

Cold War on the periphery: the case of King Hussein of Jordan (1)

Nigel Ashton, London School of Economics

'In the great struggle between communism and freedom, there can be no neutrality.' (2) With these words delivered before the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 3 October 1960, the young King Hussein of Jordan earned himself a reputation as a formidable Cold Warrior in the United States. Indeed Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev helped his cause still further by staging a symbolic walkout just before Hussein spoke. Although the king could not quite muster the dry wit of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who responded to Khrushchev's famous shoe-banging interruption to his own speech by asking 'Can I have a translation, please?', the king did express his deep concern about the Soviet attempt to wreck the United Nations through Khrushchev's attack on the office of the Secretary-General. Explaining the purpose of his address to the Assembly, Hussein emphasised that he 'wanted to be sure that there was no mistake about where Jordan stands in the conflict of ideologies that is endangering the peace of the world'.

While one might be tempted to dismiss Hussein's anti-communist rhetoric as no more than a product of his client relationship with the United States, in his autobiography written the following year, Hussein developed a coherent ideological case as to why communism was incompatible with the Hashemite brand of Arab nationalism. This encompassed both an opposition to communist atheism and the aspiration for Arab independence from any form of imperialist influence. From Hussein's own perspective, therefore, there was an ideological as well as a practical justification for his Cold War relationship with the United States. Nevertheless, it is on the practical side of this relationship that most commentators have focused. To some extent this is understandable. Two considerations predominated in Jordanian foreign policy under Hussein. The first was the attempt to deter enemies, whether in the form of neighbouring states, or non-state actors such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The second was the search for money to remedy Jordan's chronic budget deficit. In both respects, the alliance with the United States was crucial to Hussein. But did this mean that the King was in effect no more than a lackey of the United States, a convenient Arab agent to whom the waging of the Cold War in the Middle East might be partly sub-contracted? Evidence in support of this thesis might seem to be provided both by the regular payments made to Hussein by the CIA across the years from 1957 onwards, and by his covert contacts with the US's other key regional ally, Israel, from 1963 onwards. In fact, such an interpretation does not account for the positions actually adopted by Hussein during key regional crises.

During the Suez Crisis of 1956, for example, the first Arab leader to congratulate the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, on his nationalisation of the Anglo-French owned Suez Canal Company was Hussein. 'The shadow of exploitation is fading from the Arab world. The wrong is eliminated and substituted by the right', Hussein wrote. (3) Then, when Britain and France launched military action against Egypt in collusion with Israel to seize back the canal, Hussein was personally inclined to mount a rash military intervention in support of Egypt, and, somewhat ironically, had to be restrained by the more cautious Nasserite Jordanian Prime Minister, Suleiman al-Nabulsi. (4) Although, in the wake of the Suez crisis, Hussein moved away from his independent, Arab nationalist course, towards the orbit of the United States, the next great regional crisis, the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, found him once again on the opposite side to the Western powers. In public, Hussein was ostentatious in his attempts to distance himself from the American and British Governments. On 4 June 1967, he summoned the non-Arab heads of diplomatic missions in Amman to thank those who were supporting the Arab cause, and pointedly to snub those 'former friends' who he said were 'hostile or lukewarm to the Arab cause'. He dwelt on the same themes in an ensuing press conference. The king's public hostility to Britain and America was, for the British Ambassador in Amman, a 'remarkable and depressing feature' of the crisis. (5)

During the June war itself, Hussein, alongside Nasser, was one of the two authors of the so-called 'Big Lie' - the claim that Israel had been assisted in defeating the Arabs by British and American air forces. Although by the end of June 1967, the King had to admit on American television that there was 'no evidence whatsoever' that the British and Americans had been involved in the Israeli attack, blaming the misunderstanding on 'some radar sightings of aircraft that were appearing from the sea', the damage in terms of Arab public opinion had already been done. (6) It was not until September 1970, with his successful crackdown on the PLO guerrilla forces based in Jordan, and his repulsion of the simultaneous Syrian invasion, that the king's relations with Washington were really fully repaired. Even then, the unwillingness of the Nixon administration to put pressure on Israel to give ground in the covert peace negotiations Hussein had been pursuing since the 1967 war remained a source of tension in bilateral relations.

During the run up to the 1973 war Hussein was effectively shut out from the detailed planning conducted by the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and the Syrian President Hafez Asad. Nevertheless, his specific warnings about the likely outbreak of war based on his own intelligence sources in Syria were ignored in Washington, London and Jerusalem. In the October war itself, Jordan did not open up a separate front, but did engage its forces to help prevent a collapse on the Syrian front, albeit after due warning to Israel. Hussein reaped little reward for his circumspection in 1973. Between 1978 and 1980 he was effectively bypassed by the Carter administration as it pursued the possibility of a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli peace deal opened up by Sadat's pioneering visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. Sharing his recollections of the Camp David peace process two decades later, Hussein still recalled that 'I was very angry. I really was upset about it . We were never a part of it in Jordan and the Camp David Accords imposed on us in Jordan a role that we had not been consulted about of essentially providing security in the West Bank with joint patrols and this and that and the other but without even having a say in it'. (7) Hussein's refusal in the wake of the November 1978 Arab summit in Baghdad to join the Camp David process led to a serious rupture in his relations with the Carter administration. In his memoirs, Carter noted that 'all of us were angered when Hussein subsequently became a spokesman for the most radical Arabs'. (8) According to the then Jordanian prime minister, Mudar Badran, the king received a personal, hand-written letter from Carter in which the president warned him of the potential dangers to his position if he did not sign up to the Camp David accords. (9) The implied threat was clear. US-Jordanian relations were only subsequently salvaged by events beyond the control of either party in the shape of the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. According to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, 'despite our differences over Camp David and the King's ill-advised intemperance earlier this year, the fundamental relationship is very important to US interests'. (10) This at any rate illustrated that interdependence was one of the characteristics of the king's relations with the United States during the Cold War.

During the 1980s, as Hussein gravitated more and more into the orbit of his powerful neighbour, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, his relations with Washington suffered. The king was deeply frustrated by President Ronald Reagan's refusal to press Israel to resume multilateral peace negotiations. Hussein's fourth wife, Queen Noor, recalls one occasion when he replayed a tape of a phone conversation he had had with Reagan for her benefit to show how little understanding the president had of the regional situation. 'Everything is scripted for him', she recollects the king saying. (11) The deterioration in relations between Jordan and the United States was thrown into sharp relief by the king's stance during the 1990–1 Gulf Crisis. Once again, Hussein was to be found adopting what he saw as an independent, Arab nationalist stance, through his attempt to remain neutral in the conflict. The conventional explanation at the time was that the weight of domestic Jordanian opinion in favour of Saddam Hussein's Iraq left the king little option but to stand aside, whatever the cost to his relations with the United States. Subsequent history, in the shape of his successor King Abdullah's decision to offer facilities to the US military during the 2003 campaign in Iraq, despite facing the same hostility from domestic public opinion, tends to call this explanation into question. Rather, the king's stance is more easily explicable in terms of his personal concept of Arab nationalism and independence, the lineage of which can be traced back to the views expressed in Uneasy Lies the Head, thirty years earlier.

The notion that King Hussein of Jordan acted as no more than an Arab client of the United States during the Cold War, then, does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Rather, Hussein's strategy was driven by a complex mix of ideology and self-interest, which sometimes found him cooperating closely with the US and sometimes opposing it. Of course, Hussein was no fool. He knew that American fears about Soviet encroachment in the Arab world could be exploited to enhance his own position during the frequent rounds of negotiation for arms and economic assistance which he undertook with Washington. He also knew that the portrayal of a local threat to his position, such as that presented by the Syrian invasion in September 1970, as a Cold War threat backed by the Soviet Union would improve his chances of securing support from the United States. Nevertheless, Hussein was willing to make do with far less in the way of military and economic largesse from the United States than was offered by the Soviet Union to its Arab allies. With only one minor exception in the 1980s, he never turned to the Soviet Union instead for arms supplies. Perhaps, at the bottom of it all, Hussein realised that communism and monarchy did not mix. Both during the Cold War and after, the survival of his dynasty was the goal which was ultimately closest to his heart. This goal was best secured by pitching tent in the Western camp.

  1. Nigel Ashton's book, Contested Destiny: The Life of King Hussein of Jordan will be published by Yale University Press in 2007/8. Back to (1)
  2. For the full text of Hussein's speech see his early autobiography, Uneasy Lies the Head (1962), pp. 200–7. Back to (2)
  3. Text of Hussein's letter in Amman to Foreign Office, 28 July 1956 (The National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office (hereafter TNA: PRO), PREM 11/1422). Back to (3)
  4. U. Dann, King Hussein and the Challenge of Arab Radicalism (Oxford, 1989), p.41; author's interview with former Jordanian Foreign Minister, Hazem Nusseibeh, Amman, 4 Sept. 2001. Back to (4)
  5. Amman to Foreign Office, telegram no. 525, 4 June 1967, TNA: PRO, PREM 13/1619; Adams to Brown, 29 June 1967, TNA: PRO, PREM 13/2742. Back to (5)
  6. Text of Hussein interview with Pauline Fredericks on NBC's Today Show, 27 June 1967 in FCO to Certain Missions, 28 June 1967, TNA: PRO, PREM 13/1622. Back to (6)
  7. Avi Shlaim's interview with King Hussein, Ascot, 3 Dec. 1996. Back to (7)
  8. J. Carter, Keeping Faith (New York, 1982), p. 410. Back to (8)
  9. Author's interview with Mudar Badran, Amman, 20 May 2001. Back to (9)
  10. Brzezinski to Carter, 20 Dec. 1979, (7)NSA Brzezinski Subject File, Box 50, Folder Presidential Determinations, 8/79–5/80, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta, Ga. Back to (10)
  11. Author's interview with Queen Noor, Ascot, 10 July 1999. Back to (11)

Back to top