Obama's Middle East peace lesson

Jordan's King Hussein worked for peace for decades. His insight is key.

To varying degrees and with inconsistent results, President Obama's predecessors have all tried and failed to midwife peace in the Middle East.

But if he is serious about investing in a meaningful, invigorated peace process he might also look beyond the lessons of his predecessors. To find an answer that will not only halt the current violence but achieve a sustainable lasting solution, he should learn from the experience of one of the most critical players in Mideast peace throughout the latter half of the 20th century – King Hussein of Jordan.

Although the king died 10 years ago next month, he could still offer critical advice to Mr. Obama.

His private papers, sealed in the Royal Hashemite Archives until I was granted exclusive access in 2007, reveal a man inspired, frustrated, encouraged, and depressed by the strategies, engagement, and political vicissitudes of the relevant players.

Hussein's private correspondence with every American president since Eisenhower offers new insight into what worked, what didn't, and how a revived effort to broker a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians might improve America's chances of success in the region.

Jimmy Carter, "thrilled" by assurances that tackling Middle East peace topped Obama's agenda, similarly buoyed Hussein's hopes that the Carter presidency might hail a new era for the region. Carter's early pursuit of a multilateral peace followed the approach favored by the king.

But with the dramatic visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977, Carter's multilateral process was effectively derailed. In the end, the 1978 Camp David summit produced a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli peace deal but neglected the fate of the Palestinians. In the king's view, until their fate was resolved, there could be no peace.

President Carter, Hussein believed, allowed himself to be tempted by the low hanging fruit – a bilateral deal – and abandoned his earlier aspirations for a regional peace deal. In a letter to Carter, the king explained his frustration on behalf of his fellow Arabs, writing, "[M]ost Arab parties, including Jordan, see the [Camp David] resolutions drawn up by the United States... as successfully achieving the well-known Israeli objective of isolating Egypt from the Arab camp and thus weakening it further."

Thirty years on, the Palestinian question remains unsolved. Hussein would probably urge Obama to establish and maintain a dogged focus on a comprehensive, multilateral solution, lest Obama's successor face the same policy challenge.

Like Obama today, President Reagan entered office with a large fund of goodwill among America's Arab allies. Yet early on, Reagan's failure to master even the basics raised serious doubts with the king.

The king's incredulity at Reagan's unabashed lack of knowledge about the region was eventually overshadowed by the Iran-contra scandal, which blindsided Hussein in November 1986.

Since 1982, the king had acted as an intermediary between Saddam Hussein and the US, which aimed to bolster the Iraqis in their war with revolutionary Iran. When the scandal broke, the king was plain in his letter to Reagan. "I must admit," he lamented, "that all my efforts to comprehend the rationale for the actions of the United States over the last eighteen months were in vain."

Along with his trust in the president, the scandal dashed the king's hopes for a new era in American-Arab relations and offer another lesson to President Obama: Play straight by your friends.

By contrast, Hussein always knew where President George H.W. Bush stood. Despite deep disagreement with Bush over the Gulf War, the letters that flowed between them present a straightforward and respectful policy dialogue.

The channel allowed Hussein to express privately his "disillusionment and deep disappointment over the divide which seems to increasingly separate genuine Arab and Muslim aspirations and legitimate rights and United States policies towards us." For his part, President Bush's frustration with the king is evident: "Your words exculpate Saddam Hussein for the most serious and most brazen crime against the Arab nation by another Arab in modern times."

It was Hussein's involvement in the US-backed peace process after the Gulf crisis that formed the backdrop for the close relationship he developed with Bill Clinton. In contrast to Reagan, Clinton took time to study the substantial US military and economic aid package the king requested in June 1994 during the peace negotiations with Israel.

Clinton and Hussein shared a commitment to negotiating a comprehensive Middle East peace. After Hussein's death, the president wrote to his son King Abdullah commending Hussein's "dedication to peace and his commitment to the universal values of tolerance and mutual respect… He was an inspiration and model for us all." A lesson here for Obama: Details impress.

If Obama wants to learn from his predecessors, understanding their relationship with King Hussein – his frustrating history with Carter's dashed effort, Reagan's lack of one, fundamental disagreements with Bush Sr., and a close but ultimately failed effort by Clinton – could give the new president the best chance at a meaningful, sustainable peace for the region and the world.

Nigel Ashton is a lecturer at the London School of Economics and the author of the biography, "King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life." Mr. Ashton is the first person granted total access to the king's private papers, which included an archive of personal correspondence between him and every American president from Eisenhower to Clinton.

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