Thanks to a fragile but real improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it has become possible to imagine the United States and its allies achieving what could plausibly be described as a win. But a win how defined, and with what implications? We asked a diverse group of observers to ponder these questions.
Most answers to the question of this symposium justifiably focus on the direct consequences: the role of Iraq in U.S. Middle East strategy, America’s reputation, implications for the U.S. Army and so forth. But indirect consequences matter, too. How “winning” in Iraq affects the position of other regional states is also a factor to be reckoned for future U.S. policy. A case in point concerns Jordan.
King Abdullah II has often said that Jordan sits between Iraq and a hard place. He said it when Iraq was Saddam Hussein’s fiefdom, but it is no less true today, if differently so. This is because Jordan—a small country not generously endowed with natural resources (neither oil nor much water), and with a population divided between long-residing East Bankers and a Palestinian diaspora—has never been able to influence often unpredictable and frequently tragic regional crises that invariably ricochet around and within Jordanian society. The Iraq war has already proved to be such a crisis.
Consider what has befallen Jordan since March 2003. First, Jordanian security has been directly challenged by terrorist attacks emanating from Iraq. The assassination of an American diplomat in 2003 and the deadly 2005 hotel bombings in Amman illustrate the problem, which Jordanians fear may grow worse if the right side does not win in Iraq. On the positive side, a Jordanian population that had been rhetorically supportive of the Iraqi “resistance” turned against its fighters after these attacks left many innocent Jordanians dead.
Second, Jordan’s internal security has been jeopardized by some 750,000 Iraqi refugees who have swollen its population by more than 15 percent. These refugees owe no allegiance to Jordan and some are loyal to and may still be connected with the remnants of the old Ba‘athi regime, as before the war. Their needs for housing, food, health care and other services have fueled inflation and taxed the capabilities of the Jordanian government. Given high unemployment and poverty levels in Jordan, it has also stoked growing hostility among Jordanians toward the Iraqi presence in the country.
Third, Jordan has suffered economically from the war. For many years, Iraq supplied Jordan with crude oil at concessionary rates, but since 2003 Jordan has had to purchase its oil on the global market. Even with some support from other oil-producing Arab states, the cost to the Jordanian treasury has been enormous. The financial burden has soared further as global oil prices have risen—another indirect effect, arguably, of the war. Amman and Baghdad recently announced that Iraqi oil exports to Jordan would resume at favorable rates—a major success for Jordanian negotiators—but the damage done to the Jordanian economy over the past five years has been substantial.
Fourth, oil aside, Jordan has long been a major trading partner with Iraq. For at least two decades, a special protocol gave Jordanian suppliers favorable access to the Iraqi market. That arrangement, in abeyance since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, may not be renewed for a number of economic reasons, despite assiduous Jordanian attempts to resuscitate it. While the Jordanian economy suffered enormously with the cutoff of trade during and immediately after the war, Jordan was in the forefront of states assisting Iraq in rebuilding its economy. It has benefited from those efforts and looks to play an important role in the years ahead. In the past, the Jordanian port of Aqaba was a key link in bringing imports into central Iraq, and it is important again today in Iraqi reconstruction efforts. Jordanians are investing considerable funds in developing Aqaba and are counting on this transit trade in the future. But the extent to which these investments will pay off depends heavily on future stability in Iraq.
Fifth, Jordan’s diplomatic posture was compromised by the war. Its Hashemite rulers have long positioned Jordan as a moderate state in the region, actively endorsing a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and associating closely, and at some cost to its domestic popularity, with the West and especially with the United States. This position has often left Jordan exposed and threatened by others in the region, the general consequence being that when the United States is strong and successful, Jordanian interests are protected, but when Washington is seen to be inept and insensitive, they suffer by association. The latter has been the case in recent years, and it is a debility that a young king has fewer resources at his disposal to fight than did his universally respected father.
Sixth and finally on this list, the domination of Baghdad and Iraq’s central government by Iraqi Shi‘a is certainly not welcomed in Amman. Jordan has virtually no Shi‘a population, so unlike such Sunni-ruled states as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, it does not worry about sectarian-based political contagion. Nonetheless, the Jordanian leadership and people have long associated with the Sunni population of Iraq. Jordanian tribes are closely related to those in Iraq, especially in the western provinces. Jordanians also share the Iraqi Sunni belief that the present Shi‘a-dominated Iraqi state actively discriminates against and seeks to marginalize Sunnis.
While Jordan’s Sunni tribal view is driven to some degree by societal affinities, it also reflects a strategic fear—the role of Iran in the new Iraq. The Jordanian leadership has had poor relations with Iran since the fall of the Shah in 1979, and Jordan, along with virtually every other Arab state except Syria, viewed the former Iraqi regime as a defender of the Arab world against the Persian revolution. Implicit in this attitude was the historic Arab concern about Persian ambitions, and beneath even this concern is the centuries-old cleavage between Sunni and Shi‘a groups within Islam.
Iraq will remain critical to Jordan whether U.S. policy ends up winning or losing in the land between the two rivers. Even a U.S. “win”, however defined, will likely leave an Iraqi state struggling within itself over issues of power and influence. Ethnic tensions and political elites within ethnic factions will continue to dominate its political landscape. Iraq will remain united geographically but divided politically—a weaker player in regional events than before, but important nevertheless. Iranian influence will remain significant and contentious, as well.
That said, a “win” would be far better than the alternative. A stable Iraq promises more trade, fewer refugees lingering in Jordan and less cross-border violence. More important, success would vindicate and strengthen the U.S. reputation, which would redound to the benefit of the regime and raise the prospect of facing down and ultimately defeating the feared Shi‘a arc that includes Hizballah in Lebanon, the Alawi regime in Damascus (often a security threat to Jordan), a Shi‘a Iraq and, of course, Iran. If the “arc” can be contained or defeated, Jordan can develop a much better relationship with even a Shi‘a-dominated Iraqi state into the future. In the final analysis, Jordan needs a good relationship with Iraq, and to the extent it can build one, it can be a more successful advocate of Sunni inclusion in the evolving Iraqi political system.
A stable and self-assured Iraq is also useful to Jordan as a partner in the Arab world. Jordan wants to see Iraq active again in Arab politics both because of its ability to balance other Arab forces (Syria, for example) as well as a means of reducing Iranian regional influence. That, in turn, is why Jordan looks toward a reassertion of the Arab nature of the Iraqi state. Jordan hopes to see Iran’s current preeminent position with Iraqi Shi‘a diminish as Iraqis of all backgrounds recall that they are Arabs (and Kurds), not Persians. Jordanians have reason to be optimistic about this over the long term, for Iraqi Arab interests will not naturally align with Persian ones.
If things get worse in Iraq, and if the United States is ultimately seen in the region as having been defeated, all of the positive outcomes just cited reverse themselves. How bad could it get? Very bad, particularly if civil order breaks down fundamentally in Iraq and Jordan is saddled with a refugee problem beyond its coping powers. A Jordan that is poorer, more isolated, and more vulnerable to terrorism and Iranian blandishments will need help from its allies and the United States more than ever. If for some reason it does not get that help at a crucial moment, the survival of the Hashemite monarchy itself could be placed at risk. Considering Jordan’s traditional role as both an east-west and north-south buffer, that would represent a major blow to U.S. interests, especially if a far less friendly and stable regime were to replace the present one. One can only hope that the indirect stakes of what happens in Iraq do not escape the attention of future U.S. decision-makers, because indirect is not a synonym for unimportant.