Amman, Jordan — American boots are on the ground here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Nearly 5,000 U.S. military personnel joined Jordanian troops for “Eager Lion,” a training exercise that ended with a gesture of solidarity: The U.S. left behind a detachment of F-16 aircraft and a Patriot missile-defense system — along with 700 U.S. military personnel to man them, and 200 experts tasked with teaching Jordanians what to do in case of chemical-weapons attacks.
The concern, of course, is that the war in neighboring Syria could “spill over,” an imprecise way of saying that both Syria’s Iranian-backed dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups within the coalition fighting him see Jordan as an enemy based on the fact that it’s moderate, allied with the U.S., and at peace with Israel.
Jordan confronts other challenges as well: Lacking oil and natural gas, it is spending a fortune to import 96 percent of its energy, and 87 percent of its food. Water is chronically in short supply. More than a half million Syrian refugees are further straining the country’s economic and social fabric.
Despite all that, a visitor to Amman, the nation’s capital, cannot help but be struck by how normal — even relaxed — Jordanians appear. On a Friday night, the conclusion of the Muslim Sabbath, people are out and about, dining in elegant restaurants, sipping coffee in cozy cafes, and shopping. Wandering about, I come across art galleries, a rock-and-gem store, and a street that features pet shops. The women of Amman are well dressed and free to cover or not, with some managing clever compromises — e.g., a scarf over the head, tight blue jeans and high heels below. At Taj, a thoroughly modern shopping mall, there are prayer rooms (separate ones for men and women), but also a Victoria’s Secret.
Yes, this could be the calm before a dreadful storm. But it’s also possible that Jordanian society is more resilient than the conventional wisdom would have it. Jordanians look around their neighborhood and see Syria, mired in a civil war that has taken more than 90,000 lives; Yemen, embroiled in conflicts against both al-Qaeda combatants and Iranian-backed rebels; Egypt, in economic freefall thanks to a Muslim Brotherhood government; Iraq, where sectarian violence killed more than a thousand people in May alone; Pakistan, where jihadists recently attacked a bus carrying young women students, then attacked the hospital where they were taken for treatment; and even Turkey, where increasing Islamist authoritarianism has sparked mass protests. It’s at least plausible that they are asking themselves: “Is what we have so bad? And if we throw it away, what will replace it?”
What they have of course is King Abdullah II, whose coronation was 14 years ago this month. An argument can be made that monarchs enjoy a legitimacy dictators only dream of. But it’s more complicated than that: On the one hand, Abdullah’s ancestors were born not in this territory but in the Hejaz, the stretch of Arabia bordering the Red Sea. On the other hand, the king descends from the Prophet Mohammed, and it was his clan, the Hashemites, that for a millennium served as the custodians of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest places.
Then, early in the last century, the Saudis, a fierce warrior clan aligned with the Wahhabis, a fundamentalist religious sect, deposed the Hashemites. The British, who had assumed responsibility for the former Ottoman territory of Palestine, found a new home for them east of the Jordan River. In 1921, it was called the Emirate of Transjordan; in 1946, it became the Kingdom of Transjordan; and in 1949, it adopted its current name, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
King Abdullah, 51, is a faithful Muslim who has constructed, adjacent to his palace, a mosque that can hold 5,500 worshipers. But he is decidedly not an Islamist: He does not believe it is the mission of Muslims of the 21st century to resurrect the seventh century, the era when a religion born in Arabia gave rise to armies that, with astonishing rapidity, went on to conquer and colonize the lands of Christians and polytheists, dominating the world for more than a thousand years.
The remains of that empire — from Morocco to Albania to Bangladesh to Indonesia — constitute what we today call “the Muslim world,” more than 50 countries, the vast majority of them not free, and less than tolerant of their surviving minority populations.
The king calls himself a reformer, a believer in constitutional monarchy, representative democracy, and meritocracy. The evidence, I think, supports that claim. But he also understands that democratic institutions and habits must evolve — they cannot be imposed overnight in cultures where the power of ancient tribal allegiances trumps the power of new ideas.
In any case, it is the civil war in neighboring Syria that most concerns Jordan at present. Officials say they are not taking sides. They have denied media reports that the CIA and U.S. special operations forces are training Syrian rebels on Jordanian soil.
Assad does not believe them. On a day when I’m meeting with Jordanian officials, a controversy erupts over Syria’s ambassador, Bahjat Suleiman, using his Facebook page to call Bassam Manasir, an important member of Jordan’s parliament, “a servant of the enemies of Syria and Jordan” (you can guess who those are). In response, Manasir demands Suleiman’s expulsion.
Whatever the outcome in Syria, it will be problematic for Jordan. Should Assad survive, he will be more beholden than ever to Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. A new Pew poll finds the Iranian regime disliked by 81 percent of Jordanians. On the other hand, should the rebels succeed in toppling the dictatorship — in recent days, President Obama has pledged to assist the nationalist factions — Jordan could find itself tangling with the bin Ladenist groups that have been the most effective anti-regime fighting forces.
Jihad does not appear to be catching on in Jordan — but neither is the kingdom immune to the virus. Recall that it was a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, dispatching numerous suicide bombers against both Shiite and American targets. In 2005, Zarqawi also was responsible for a series of bombings at upscale Amman hotels that killed 60 people. He achieved what he saw as martyrdom the following year when U.S forces dropped a 500-pound bomb on what he thought was a safe house.
There also was “triple agent” Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian physician and online jihadist recruited by Jordanian intelligence to serve as a mole inside al-Qaeda. In December 2009, he strapped a 30-pound bomb vest to his chest and detonated it at a CIA outpost in Afghanistan, killing seven senior CIA operatives as well as Ali bin Zeid, his Jordanian handler, himself a member of the royal family.
The Muslim world is not a monolith. But it could become one — if Americans, out of fatigue and frustration, abandon the realm to the tender mercies of jihadists and Islamists, terms the king’s advisers do not avoid as do so many politically correct American and European officials. Jordanians see with their own eyes that the “tide” of war is not “receding.” On the contrary, without America’s continuing support, they and other moderate Muslims — resilient though they may be — are in danger of being inundated by the encroaching waters of terrorism and theocratic imperialism.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.