Is democracy the official U.S. goal in the Middle East and around the world? Not necessarily. Not always, certainly not now. U.S presidents may talk about democraticaspirations everywhere – but the record is a matter of relativity. (Remember the Shah of Iran, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the South African minority apartheid regime, to name a few cases.)
The U.S. conundrum, no matter how thoughtful and sincere the president of the moment, could hardly be worse than in the case of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. (Saudi Arabia is a more complicated, different order of magnitude) What would the United States prefer: King Abdullah II and his pro-American constancy or the shaky possibilities of the ballot box? About one third of Jordan’s 6.5 million people are Palestinian refugees and most of them are Jordanian citizens. Open elections might move in an unscripted direction.
Historically, U.S. officials fear Palestinian voters going to the polls. In 2006, when Hamas won a majority in Palestinian parliamentary elections, it would have been hard to deny this was the people’s legitimate choice. Yet the Bush administration reacted with anger and halted financial aid to the Palestinian government – so did the European community. So much for democratic elections.
The United States has taken a couple of quick turns of policy in the recent popular uprisings around the Levant – Mubarak gone to seed, Yemen sinking fast, Libya bombing runs. But U.S. officials would be stuck if things turned very bad in Jordan. So far protests for political reform in Jordan have been rather mild.
King Abdullah has his American side. He is a graduate of the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. More than once, an attentive shopper might have bumped elbows with him on a on Saturday morning when Abdullah—jean-clad and unnoticed–browsed the bookshelves at Barnes and Noble in Georgetown.
The king is likely staying home for a while. He’s engaged in what he calls a “national dialogue,” which in some ways is more open, more prosperous than Arab neighbors.
The king, quoted by the Jordan information bureau, said this week that “We are moving ahead with the reform endeavor to build upon achievements, bring about development and realize Jordanians’ aspirations for a better future.”
Abdullah even insinuates he’s thinking about bigger changes. The Information Bureau also said this: “During a meeting with representatives of the professional associations, the King called for supporting all forms of constructive dialogue and standing firm against non-democratic moves that threaten the country’s national unity.”
The king would be a democrat, lower and probably upper case, if he took out U.S. citizenship. But in Jordan, it is likely that he will hold the prerogatives of the throne as long as he can–with steadfast support from the United States.