A comprehensive, highly readable life of the well-known but much-overlooked Middle Eastern leader.
Middle Eastern politics is endlessly complex. Born in Baghdad, raised in Israel, educated in Britain and now a resident of Germany, Shlaim (International Relations, Oxford; The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, 2000, etc.) is well equipped to comprehend and convey just how tortuous its routes can be. Modern Jordan began as a British-governed bulwark against Saudi expansionism, a defense against their “pristine and puritanical brand of Islam.” By the time Hussein bin Talal (1935–99) ascended to the throne of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1953, his nation stood between Saudi Arabia and Iraq on one side and Israel on the other. In the greater scheme of the “Arabian Cold War” that would soon develop, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were friendly with the West, while Syria, Egypt and Iraq favored the Soviets. All were to some degree hostile to Israel, though once Jordan tasted defeat in the 1967 war—a conflict, Shlaim writes, born of “Arab overconfidence and Arab overbidding” that proved largely that the Arab states “cannot act separately and they cannot act collectively”—Hussein became increasingly committed to seeking peace, not least because so many Jordanians were now dispossessed Palestinians opposed to his rule. Regrettably, Shlaim writes, Israeli intransigence worked against peace. Hussein was constantly underestimated and shoved aside, while American diplomats such as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton viewed him as a minor character in the larger drama of world politics. Sharper attention turned to King Hussein when it appeared he was aligning Jordan with Iraq during the first Gulf War, though, Shlaim suggests, Hussein was not wrong to disdain the Kuwaiti ruling family.
Hussein’s legacy, Shlaim holds, is “the possibility, at least, of peace in the Middle East,” toward which he contributed a share—indeed, a lion’s share. A worthy biography.