Who Was Hussein?

Article excerpt

Suave celebrity couldn't turn a small king into a giant.

Everyone loves a good funeral, and King Hussein's was one of the best. Like the monarch himself, his last rites played well on TV-the metaphorical gray and leaden sky might just as well have been made to order for CNN's executive producers. The network treated the affair as a celebrity send-off, a Diana-like extravaganza in which the stars paying their respects just happened to be world leaders-Clinton, Netanyahu, and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad instead of Elton John, Tom Cruise, and George Michael.

Even when Assad deliberately skipped the long, slow funeral procession in order to avoid appearing near blood enemies from the Jewish state, CNN's Walter Rodgers could manage only the hapless comment that "perhaps" the Syrian leader wanted to distance himself from the Israeli delegation. Yes, and perhaps the king wasn't feeling all that well.

Hussein was a celebrity, of course, a man of enormous charm, a royal with the common touch. Upon his death the media called up a treasure chest of folksy anecdotes that portrayed the wily autocrat as just a regular guy-how he passed harmless hours nattering away on his ham radio, how he addressed everyone as "sir," how he once ordered his driver to pull over so he could comfort a woman he saw weeping by the side of the road. Her son had been imprisoned, and the king had her chauffeured to the palace the next day, where she found her errant boy waiting for her.

This sort of thing was touching, at least as long as one didn't think to ask who imprisoned the boy in the first place. Hussein was a more complicated man, and a less pleasant one, than the pure and pristine soul of funereal myth. For one thing he was known to appreciate a well-turned ankle, and had he not been to the manor born-had he been, say, a professional basketball starthere might have been more comment about the ii children he sired with his four wives. He dismissed the first wife after i8 months, sending a telegram while she was on vacation abroad to tell her the marriage was over. After that he kept her from seeing their daughter for six years.

And while it is true that he found himself in a rough neighborhood-the geopolitical equivalent of the projects, an unsafe battleground teeming with thugs-he adapted himself readily to the local style. He banned all political parties, and the clusters of CNN cameras at the funeral gave no sign that press censorship in the kingdom is harsh and punitive. "Insulting the monarch" brings a stiff prison sentence.

The "stability" for which he was so fulsomely praised was the stability of the tightrope walker who discards his balance pole to avoid tumbling off. He formed and re-formed governments even more often than he switched political allegiances, freely interchanging civilian and military cabinets as the need arose. In 1967 he backed the Arabs against Israel, costing him the West Bank and swelling his increasingly difficult refugee population. But in 1973 he sided with the Jews, leading Assad to amass his tanks along the border. An invasion was averted only by Israel's threat to launch an air attack on Syria.

Hussein also badly mismanaged the Palestinians, shifting from one stance to the next as events overtook him. At the outset he fashioned himself as the international representative of the Palestinian people, but as Yasir Arafat and the PLO rose to power in his own backyard, Hussein became disillusioned and then frankly worried. The PLO had laid claim to being "the only legitimate spokesman for all matters concerning the Palestinian people," and in 197o Hussein carried out a brutal and bloody suppression of the group. The Black September debacle-an outright civil war-left thousands of bodies piled on the streets.

Then he performed yet another staggering about face, trying to win back the Palestinians by proposing the creation of a United Arab Kingdom incorporating a Palestinian state, a proposal that was rejected by all concerned-the Palestinians, Israel, the Arab world, the United States. …