Jordan, location of Wednesday’s very lethal bombings at three hotels, is in many ways a highly improbable country. It was created in the post-WW-1 carve-up of that part of the previous Ottoman Empire– primarily to be given as a sort of “consolation prize” to a branch of the Hashemite family that had previously been offered thet part of western Saudi Arabia that contains the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina…
But wouldn’t you know it, the warrior-dynast Abdel-Aziz ibn Saud insisted on staying on in that part of the Arabian peninsula. Insisted it belonged to his family, not anyone else’s. (And certainly that it wasn’t for the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas to give it away to anyone else.). So the Hashemites were left to wander like Moses in the desert…
But not for very long. The Brits rapidly installed one Hashemite leader in “Transjordan”, as it was then called, and they tried to install another in Damascus. But the French weren’t having any of that, so that one was shuttled over and recycled into Iraq, instead…
You get the picture? Behind a rhetoric that intermittently talked about the need for the “self-determination” of local Arab populations– as against their earlier rule by Istanbul– the British Colonial Office chappies (and uber-chapette Gertrude Bell) were busy playing “musical kings” all around the region… “And when the music stops you all stay where you are.”
Layered onto that, of course, was the (gasp!) imperial rivalry between the British and French. Did you ever look at a “political map” of this region and wonder why (1) so many of the borders between the states there are perfectly straight lines, or (2) why there’s a funny squarish tab of “Jordan” that extends east-north-east a little bit, up to join Iraq? All that is the result of intense negotiations– between the British and the French. (Self-determination? Well, I guess it depends what the meaning of “self” is.)
As for that tab that links Jordan to Iraq, the explanation for that is quite simple. It’s called an oil pipeline. If you drive along that long, extremely boring desert road there you pass through places with the quaint “names” of H-2, H-3, H-4, etc… Pumping stations that became way-stations and then ragged little towns.
Well, in the late 1990s, the Project for a New American Century and other pro-Likud neocons started pushing for their own, more recent version of Middle Eastern “musical kings”. This was the approach sometimes known as “Everybody Move Over One” (see, e.g., here.) Under EMOO, Israel would get to keep the West Bank. The Palestinians– who have been squeezed very hard in the West Bank since 1967 and have long constituted a numerical majority in Jordan– would “get” Jordan. And the Hashemites would play another round of musical kings and “get” Iraq.
Except it hasn’t really worked out that way yet, has it? Instead, what we seem to be seeing in the region is the unfolding of an EMOO theory that– like all the indigenous writing systems of this region– moves from right to left, rather than left to right. The Iranians– who didn’t even really feature in EMOO-Mark 1– have majorly extended their influence westward into Iraq. That has squeezed the Sunni Arabs of Iraq… And now, using the network of linkages that’s always existed between western Iraq and Jordan, the chaos and violence from Iraq have been bleeding over into Jordan, too.
No, I am not saying that this means that in the near future the Palestinians will suddenly be able to push westward back against the Likud and establish their own power in the West Bank. But I do think we can draw a few broader and more general lessons from what has been happening:
- 1. Any use of violence has unpredictable human consequences— and the more major the violence used, the more unpredictable and long-lasting the aftershocks will be. Washington’s cavalier and very violent “move on the Middle Eastern chessboard” against Saddam had consequences that were unforeseen, literally unforeseeable, and have continued to this day to cause serious harm to the interests of the peoples of that region (and the US citizenry.)
2. National boundaries drawn in colonial times, by colonial hands, certainly had detrimental effects on the interests and lifestyles of the indigenous peoples. But over their decades in existence those boundaries acquired some coherence and legitimacy, even if only through force majeure. They allowed some predictability in governance and the possibility (if nowhere the reality) of the emergence of accountability in governance. All the pan-Arabist challenges to the Sykes-Picot boundaries failed. Current attempts to redraw the regional map– even if “only” through the emergence of quasi-independent statelets inside Iraq– will certainly ricochet throughout the whole region. This will bring the threat of violence and social breakdown to increasing circles of population throughout the region.
3. Jordan has always been a buffer state. Right now, it’s a very uneasy “buffer” between Israel and Iraq. It is a major conduit for the shipment of US war supplies into Iraq– whether these come into Jordan through Aqaba or through or from Israel… It is also the territory where population of the dispossessed and angry population of Palestine mixes with the dispossessed and angry population of western and central Iraq.
Jordan– like much of the rest of the region– feels to me like an explosion waiting to happen. So far, the King has acted with agility. Getting his supporters very visibly out on the streets of Amman yesterday, before the pro-Islamist people could get their people there, was a smart move. Zarqawi hurt himself badly– and quite possibly also damaged the anti-US cause more broadly– by the wanton and inhumane nature of Wednesday’s violence. (The counter-productive effect of the purveyors of terror on the building of genuine, mass-based social movements was ever thus.) So maybe the explosion has been staved off from Jordan for a little while?
Still, the whole region of the Middle East is now bubbling with different kinds of political energy. It hasn’t looked this volatile and unpredictable since 1970. That was the year when these things happened:
- (1) The Palestinian militants of George Habash’s PFLP tried and failed to topple the monarchy in Jordan. But they threw the whole country into chaos as they did so.
(2) Gamal Abdel-Nasser died of a heart attack– in the midst of trying to negotiate an end to the Palestinian-Jordanian battles in Jordan.
(3) Hafez al-Asad, then the commander of the Syrian Air Force and a relative moderate in the Syrian Baath Party, made the crucial decision not to use air power to support Syrian tanks going to aid the Palestinians in Jordan… That decision persuaded the Syrian tank commanders to turn back home; and shortly afterward Asad made the coup that brought his much less adventurous branch of the Baath to power in Damascus.
In 1969, Qadhafi had seized power in Libya and Saddam Hussein did the same in Iraq… So 1969 and 1970 were really transformative years for the politics of the whole region. Jordan was a crucial locus and engine of much of that change.
Since 1970, as I’ve written before, the political systems of nearly all these polities became quite ossified. Thirty months ago, Washington took a sledgehammer to the Iraqi part of the region’s bone-set, and now, much of the ossification seems to be shattering. The whole Middle East will most likely see a lot of deep, rapid, and hard-to-predict change in the two years ahead. This much is easy to predict though: these changes will look nothing like the rosy scripts of spread of US-style democratization and US influence touted by the war-planners before March 2003 and since.