King Hussein's Quest

KING Hussein shouldn't have to knock on doors all over Washington to ask for the debt relief promised by President Clinton last year when Jordan and Israel signed their historic peace agreement.

Some members of Congress may grouse about this arrangement, wondering why debt relief isn't offered to their own constituents -- farmers, for instance -- who owe the government money. But this is foreign policy, not personal finance.

The king richly earned his debt relief by taking the politically risky step of signing a forward-looking agreement with a neighbor still scorned by many of his Arab brethren. The United States has made a big investment in Middle East peace, and last fall's Jordan-Israel pact was part of the payoff.

As US budget items go, the few hundred million in debt forgiveness promised Jordan doesn't amount to much. But every item gets close scrutiny today, and foreign aid is always a relatively painless cut.

Stinginess in this area, however, can have painful effects. For the US to renege on the debt-relief deal would undermine King Hussein's attempt to show that peace brings rewards. It would cast a pall over peace efforts with Palestinians and Syrians, who might have deepened suspicions about the solidity of such arrangements. Not least, it would throw added doubt on the ability of the Clinton administration to credibly conduct US foreign policy.

Some in Congress may still resent Jordan's role during the Gulf war, when King Hussein refused to side against Iraq's Saddam Hussein. That was a matter of political survival for the king, since his largely Palestinian population was overwhelmingly pro-Iraq. Jordan's actions since the war show that King Hussein intends that his country play a positive role in its turbulent region.

An important element in that role is Jordan's determination to move toward democracy. The king's five-year experiment with more representative government has had ups and downs -- there were, for example, complaints about official efforts to muffle criticism of the peace agreement with Israel. But it still puts his country far in front of other Arab lands.

And it's another reason Jordan deserves the economic boost that debt relief could bring.

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