The Daily Show is listening to King Abdullah. Is anyone else?
On the Daily Show tonight, Jon Stewart is hosting Jordan's King Abdullah. Abdullah gets full points for hipness, but restoring his country's influence is another matter.
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And King Abdullah is pretty cool to begin with. He’s married to Queen Rania, one of People Magazine’s 50 most beautiful people. Before becoming king, he appeared as an extra on Star Trek: Voyager. An amateur race-car driver, he also personally drove President Barack Obama to the airport when he visited Jordan prior to being elected. Obama later joked: “I won't tell you how fast [Abdullah] was going.”
Unfortunately for Abdullah, the first Arab leader invited to Obama's White House, cool can only take you so far. He's struggled to acquire the kind of political capital once wielded by his father, King Hussein, who made peace with Israel and helped nudge Israeli-Palestinian peace talks forward.
“[Abdullah] doesn’t have any real cards to play when it comes to the final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," says Avi Shlaim, author of the King Hussein biography, "Lion of Jordan." "Jordan doesn’t have leverage either with America, or the Palestinians, or Israel, so it’s not a major player.”
That's largely due to factors outside of Abdullah's control. Hussein's 47-year reign was defined by the Israeli-Arab conflict and the context of the now-concluded cold war.
After losing the West Bank and Jerusalem in 1967's Six Day War – and seeing the demographics of his nation transformed by a flood of Palestinian refugees – Hussein was a US ally in a region where Arab nationalists like Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser were seen as being in the Soviet orbit.
And with his regional standing aided by the 1967 war with Israel (notwithstanding that it was a disaster), Hussein could act as an interlocutor for the US, the Palestinians, regional powers like Iraq and – quietly – the Israelis.
In the late 1960s there were fears his country could be taken over by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which he expelled in 1970. He spent much of the 1980s laying the groundwork for his 1994 peace deal with Israel that secured his kingdom and won him lavish US aid. But that largely cleared away the issues that had helped give him an international voice in the first place.
In contrast to his father, Abdullah has little to offer beyond maintaining his country's pro-Western policies. With no natural resources, Jordan carries little economic clout. With 6.2 million people, his country's population is just one-third the size of Cairo's. The US works closely with Jordan’s intelligence agency, but does not need the kingdom as a base for troops.
So while the White House may like Abdullah, there are other factors in their political calculations.