WASHINGTON'S threat to withdraw economic and military assistance from Jordan has an ironic twist. While President Bush and his advisers privately debate punitive measures against a longstanding ally, they publicly concede the importance of the Hashemite Kingdom to the region's stability. United States leaders have long acknowledged that there is no viable alternative to Jordan's leader, King Hussein, who last week strongly rebuked US policy in the Middle East. Secretary of State James Baker III said last week that while the US has a ``major disagreement with him ... alternatives to the king [Islamic fundamentalist or Palestinian leadership]'' do not paint a ``pretty picture.''
Boldly supporting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's struggle against the US-led coalition forces, the king has gained unprecedented credibility among the Arab masses, particularly his own people. Saddam's pillage of opulent Kuwait holds a broad appeal as the battle cry for the avenging poor and disenfranchised. King Hussein's endorsement of Iraq wins favor among the largely impoverished and Palestinian population in Jordan.
``He's articulating their sentiments with a Western tongue,'' says Riad Ajami, an Arab scholar and head of the business program at Ohio State University.
The king's reasonable, rational approach toward the West is a valuable asset, says a senior Jordanian official. Support for Iraq, he says, is no less rational. Among Arab masses, Saddam symbolizes Western oppression, not a revered leader. In a conflict between the US and an Arab country, there is no middle ground for Jordan, says the official. ``Our side is with an Arab country.''
That position exacts a high price from Iraq's neighbor and most strident supporter. UN estimates put Jordan's losses at $2.7 billion a year, nearly 70 percent of its gross domestic product, due to lost trade, aid, and revenues from established relationships with Gulf countries.
Some $50 million in US aid scheduled for Jordan in fiscal year 1992 may be in jeopardy, but the money is politically, not economically important, says the Jordanian official. ``Most of the money is project aid, going toward American consultants and US companies anyway. What we need now is direct cash to pay for fuel and basic imports.''
Jordanian officials expect Arab loyalty to at least pay off politically in the postwar period. Fighting alongside western allies, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have alienated the Arab world, they argue. Jordan may emerge the sole Arab country with Arab trust and Western access.
Jordan can help anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, says Paul Jureidini, a Middle East expert with Abbott Associates, a Washington-based consulting firm. ``If we want Arab reconciliation in the aftermath of the war, Jordan will play a central role. The king is the only leader in the Arab world who is pro-Western. The expedience that draws Arab states together with the West in a coalition - Syria, Saudi Arabia, and others - may not exist after the war,'' says Mr. Jureidini.
``Jordan will prove a more reliable ally than Egypt or Syria, now aligned with the coalition,'' says Riad Ajami. ``Economic convenience doesn't make for long-term friendships. The average Egyptian, for example, will not find his economic lot better tomorrow, despite the award of $7 billion in military debt forgiveness. There will be resentment; people will ask `what have I gotten out of fighting with the West against other Arabs?'''
Marwan Muasher, director of Jordan's Information Bureau in Washington says Jordan's streets, full of popular emotional support for Saddam, cannot undermine the government's moderating influence. ``We have a democracy made up of communists from the far left and Islamic fundamentalists from the far right ... they have all committed themselves to playing the political game in an organized manner.''
``The real danger for the US in the Middle East is that emotions are running too high - the US and allies are seen as the opposition. Instability may cause violence and the overthrow of governments. We can help contain this danger,'' Muasher says.
US influence is essential to Jordan's moderating role as an Arab leader and a western ally. ``The king needs a safety net under his tightwire,'' says Ajami. Unless the US ``puts the squeeze on the Saudis not to further demonize the king,'' Jordan will remain cut off from its most important sources of financial aid and trade, he says.
Compared with $57 million in US aid doled out to Jordan last year, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates collectively sent Amman $400 million.
Arab Gulf support is essential, says Ajami. King Hussein's rule could give way to more radical elements if the economy is allowed to collapse. The West, including the US, is distracted by other needs and will not offer large-scale support of Jordan's economy. Ultimately, the fray in US-Jordanian relations is not the problem, says Ajami, it's the breakdown in Jordanian-Gulf relations.