Don't Cast Off Jordan

JUST last summer, Jordan was among the few Arab states embarked on greater democracy. The kingdom had held parliamentary elections and was drafting a new national charter. King Hussein, while keeping a firm grip on power, was opening his society to wider political expression. That process, like so much else, was eclipsed by the Gulf crisis and subsequent war. The king warned that the forces unleashed by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the Western response to it could destroy his fragile land.

That prophecy hasn't come true, but the radicalization of politics in Jordan, the country's acute economic distress, and its susceptibility to military provocation from either Israel or Iraq lend credibility to the royal fears.

The king, long recognized as the Middle East's preeminent political survivor, has been responsive to the emotions generated by the bombing of Iraq. His largely Palestinian people, with strong sympathies for Saddam Hussein's challenge to the West and Israel, are enraged.

That underlies the king's sharp criticism of the United States and its coalition partners. He shares some of that popular rage - not just for the destruction wrought by the air war, but for the intransigence on all sides, as he sees it, that led to war.

But in the minds of many in Washington, the king's sympathies for Iraq are inexcusable. The $50 million a year in US aid to Jordan is under attack.

It would be a mistake, however, to cast off Jordan. The country has been a crucial buffer state, a relative island of stability in a turbulent region. That stability and moderation may now be evaporating, and Jordan's new openness to popular expression may, ironically, be hastening that result.

But if King Hussein, now more esteemed at home than he has been in years, remains in control, he may yet steer the country back toward a constructive role after the war.

And Washington may yet value his friendship again.

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