Storm-Watching in Jordan

By Richard Cohen (THE WASHINGTON POST, 22/05/07):

The lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel here looks as it always has. The reception desk is to the right, the jewelry shop is off to the left, and straight ahead is the lounge area -- no hint that back in 2005, suicide bombers walked into this and two other hotels here and killed 59 people. Since then, nothing much has happened. Call it the quiet after the storm -- or, more likely, the quiet before the storm resumes.

Jordan, this oil-less concoction of a Middle East state, is as good a place as any to grasp the extent of the American debacle in Iraq. Jordan is also a place to understand that the debacle is not solely an American one and that the debate in Washington -- cut and run, stay the course, surge, don't surge -- has a meaning here far beyond domestic politics or even international morality. Soon, this country could have an awful fight on its hands.

Here is the scenario: The implication of a U.S. withdrawal/defeat would not be lost on any of the region's many extremist groups -- Hamas in Gaza; Hezbollah in Lebanon; al-Qaeda all over the place; and Iran behind the curtain, the puppet master of much regional terrorism. A withdrawal would empower, enthuse and just plain excite these groups. If America can be defeated in Iraq, then why not Jordan in Jordan or Egypt in Egypt -- to name just two pro-American regimes in this neck of the woods -- followed, of course, by the final battle with Israel? This is not the way the so-called war on terrorism was supposed to go.

Of course, it may not. The end of Jordan's Hashemite monarchy has been predicted with absolute assurance for as long as Hashemites have sat on the throne. The same holds for the House of Saud, just over the border in Saudi Arabia, or Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt. They have all endured. Among the lessons learned in Iraq, one hopes, is modesty. Predicting what will happen in this region is the work of fools.

But in the region itself, there is obvious nervousness. One can sense it in the language used by well-placed Jordanians -- the recurrent use of phrases such as "time is running out" and, in unguarded moments, a fusillade of invective directed at Washington. At a recent meeting of the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea, contempt for America was palpable. We have not just lost a war. We have lost our rep.

In a dank cave somewhere, Osama bin Laden must chuckle. He attacked New York and Washington and we, for some reason, not only attacked Afghanistan but an Arab state as well. Islamic radicals of all stripes can only consider such stupidity a gift from God. Now an emboldened movement can march on to attack the regimes it loathes the most -- Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. What's more, Israel -- another archenemy of the Islamic movement -- came a cropper in Lebanon last summer. It went after Hezbollah with a vengeance, but as someone here said with monumental satisfaction -- and some exaggeration -- where once Israel could go to Beirut at will, this time it got bogged down south of the Litani River. Hezbollah was hurt, not eradicated. And Israel never did get back its kidnapped soldiers. The region's two superpowers, America and Israel, have been severely humbled.

Still, the United States remains the essential player when it comes to forging any sort of deal between Israelis and Palestinians. This is why Jordan still looks to Washington in the vain hope that somehow the flat-footed Bush administration, until just recently smugly refusing to play the role that Bill Clinton did, will still manage to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the bargaining table. This might defuse tensions in the area, because the persistent humiliation of Palestine is felt keenly in Jordan. It is by far not the only problem, but its psychological and cultural significance cannot be overstated. At the Dead Sea forum, a Palestinian mother's recitation of what it was like just to take her child to school stirred -- and angered -- the audience. No Israeli was present to describe what it is like to be subjected to rocket fire from Gaza.

On the day I am writing this, the front page of the local newspaper reports many dead in fighting in Lebanon to the north, still more killed to the west in Gaza and more American soldiers dead to the east in Iraq. The region is in turmoil, maybe convulsing -- not what President Bush either promised or intended but surely what he abetted. He can take scant comfort from Jordan and its apparent tranquility. The lobby here, for example, looks just swell -- just as I remembered it before a suicide bomber walked in from reality and blew it up.