This is a marvellous political biography. Perhaps it ought to have been subtitled 'A history of King Hussein's peace efforts' for this is the principal focus of the book. There are some details on the private person of Hussein, his character and his motivation but most of this is political history. His personal qualities and shortcomings however are more than brought out by his indefatigable pursuit of just peace in the Middle East, a peace that looked liked as if it was in reach of being attained in the first half of the 1990s but tragically went unrealised as the 20th Century drew to a close.
A descendent of the prophet Mohammed, Hussein was a master of statecraft. He inherited a kingdom originally designed by the British in the aftermath of WWI as a client state, hamstrung by an absence of resources and economic potential. Hussein defied the odds and preserved the independence of his kingdom. The man himself narrowly escaped assassination along with his grandfather in 1951 (a medal on his chest absorbed the force of the bullet). Numerous rumours of his own and his kingdom's demise turned out to be exaggerated over the coming decades.
His achievements in Realpolitik were remarkable considering the sorts of people he to contend with as neighbours: the gangsterish Ba'ath regimes in Syria and Iraq, the Saudi theocracy, expansionist Israeli politicians and generals. All of these parties at various times saw the kingdom ripe for the picking Hussein knew that he could not prevent the dismemberment of his country by building the sorts of war machines his neighbours did. He had to use his political acumen to survive - and he did this with great success. Occasionally, he had to be be ruthless, as he was with Palestinian guerillas who threatend to hollow out the state from within in the late 1960s. He was not perfect by any means. But one measures a man by his comparison with his peers. Compared to other regional leaders, he seemed to be largely free of the sorts of complexes many leaders in the Middle East seem to be cursed by: bigotry, fanaticism, inflexibility, a personal disposition for violence and cruelty, to name just a few of the vices that seem to have afflicted many of the region's leaders (and not just Arab ones).
But above all else, it is Hussein's quest for a just resolution to the Palestinian plight which dominates this book. To him deserves the bulk of the credit for defining what the formula for peace is: Israel's withdrawal from its occupied territories in return for peace, a formula accepted by most of the international community (even if, as in the case of the United States, it has not been too assidious in holding Israel to it), In the 1990s, he came close to seeing his aspirations fulfilled - only to see prospects for peace dim in his twilight years in the late 1990s. Who gets the blame for this? Shlaim's assessment will not please partisans of any side. Israel's obduracy - especially its policy of settlement construction in the occupied territories, undertaken in defiance of international law, has presented a perennial obstacle to the realisation of peace. Shlaim has written elsewhere of Israel's policy of maintaining a Iron Wall vis-a-vis its neighbours, and he is unsparing in his criticism here.
But Israel has no monopoly of political vices: the Arab response to the Israeli challenge has been enfeebled by the tendency of Arab leaders to prioritise sectarian concerns at the expense of the Palestinians and the peace process. Hussein grasped what many of his peers could not: that Israel had a motivation and rationale for acting for its own purposes; it was not and is not a mere pawn for western interests and accepted that its existence had to be accepted and reckoned with. These are not observations that many of Israel's sternest critics are likely to accept.
The author does not spare his subject criticism where it is due. Hussein's decision to join the war of 1967 was a near-fatal act of folly for him and his kingdom. Hussein was neglectful of domestic considerations and the country struggled to remain solvent under his tenure. However, in the last analysis, Hussein stood head and shoulders above most of his Arab and Israeli counterparts. He had a moral vision informed and guided by realistic considerations. It was and is far more attractive that the alternative, sectarian visions peddled by both the likes of Likud and Hamas. I hope that this book succeeds in preserving this vision, and making it better-known to an English-speaking audience.
on 25 January 2008
King Hussein, who ruled Jordan from 1953 to 1999 was one of the greatest kings of the modern era with a fascinating life story. Born into a country that barely existed, with a population of only 300,000 mostly nomadic Bedouin, he brought it to be one of the centers of stablility in the Middle East. A peacemaker he didn't shirk from fighting terrorism when others tried to overthrow him. He was a freind of the greatest leaders of his time such as Gamal Nasser, Hafiz Asad, King Faisal, Golda Meir and Saddam Hussein.
But this book falls short because it mostly provides an examination of the political struggles in his country and abroad. it examines his relations with his own people and with the Palestinians and his neighbors. There is no disussin of economics or culture or Jordan's people and there is a very weak discussion of military affairs. In general this book lacks many aspects of a biography and focuses almost exclusively on politics.
Seth J. Frantzman
on 4 May 2008
This is a good book about a truly great monarch of the Middle East. What is missing from it are details of the role of specific clans and peoples of this multicultural, multiethnic community. The Circassians of Jordan played a vital part in support of this visionary leader but hardly any mention is given to them. I refer especially to certain Circassian officers who served the Hashimite family and stood by Hussein through thick and thin. It is understandable if an Arab historian ignores their role because it might not fit with an Arab national identity or ideology but I really thought that an Israeli historian would not ignore such vital information and facts. The Circassins and and the originl beduins of Jordan were the backbone of Hussein's rule as well as that of his grandfather King Abdallah the 1st.