The Lesson of Iraq

"Let us not forget that our essential policy interests are identical with those of the Arabs"

The Bedouins are the stuff from which romances are cut. Legends of their military prowess and of their loyalty "to the death" have made many think of them as the good Arabs, while their urban counterparts are the bad Arabs or the mob. But even a casual student of Arab history can quote too many examples of Bedouin fickleness for one to credit the legends with their face value. The most recent example is Iraq, in which the Bedouins, although loyal to the living King, were among the first to pledge allegiance to his living successor. We may reasonably expect, therefore, that if the King begins to lose power in Jordan he will find the Bedouins a broken reed; their support may itself be that which will "go into his hand and pierce it."

The second group in Jordanian society is composed of west bank (of the Jordan) Palestinians. Few of them make any pretense of loyalty to the state of Jordan; fewer feel any devotion to the Hashimite ruling family who, in their eyes, not only bungled the defense of Palestine in 1948 but gave the coup de grâce to what remained of Arab Palestine by gerrymandering it, without reference to the wishes of the population, into the petty state of Transjordan.

About 125,000 to 150,000 of this group live along the frontier of hate between Jordan and Israel. This is a strip fifty miles long to the north of Jerusalem. As a result of the so-called Shuna Agreement of March, 1949, King Abdullah, under threat of an immediate attack from Israel, ceded to Israel some one hundred square miles of valley land. The inhabitants, living in hill villages, were thus cut off from their farmlands. They are not, however, legally classed as refugees, since they still live in their original houses, and so do not benefit from United Nations charity. Formerly among the most prosperous farmers in Palestine, they are now destitute and bitter, are able to look from their hills into Israel and to watch others reaping what they regard as their crops. In their enforced idleness, they spend much time brooding on their fate, and for it they blame not only Israel but also the Hashimites, who failed to stop the Israelis.

The third group, also numbering about half a million, is pure refugee. Some of these people have made new, a few even better, lives for themselves, but nearly 350,000 of them are still, a decade after the war, living in camps on a United Nations dole. Even those who are relatively well off, in objective terms, have lost their homes and feel a sort of Zionism not less intense than that felt by European Jewry. The fabric of politics is not woven of strands of objective thought, and even among the objectively well off the longing for scenes of childhood, for the security and honor of the old days, is intense, as intense as is the shame and humiliation of the present. For their sorry lot, they also blame the Hashimite government. A refugee, it will be remembered, assassinated King Abdullah; now the only representative of the old order is King Hussein.

The Jordan government is well aware of the sentiment of its people, but, if it is to aspire to be more than a satrap of some more powerful state, it must use the services of the most educated and capable among its population. Our dependence upon them, for the sort of plans we have elaborated, is indicated by a recent press dispatch. Newsweek reported that "Western officials on the spot believe it is possible to undermine Hussein's opponents by pouring in economic aid and transforming the barren desert kingdom, which now needs an estimated $58 million aid annually just to survive, into a 'showcase.'" Even in flood proportions, this pouring in of money would probably be useless, for the only people who could run the showcase are those now politically disaffected. The economic problems of Jordan are severe enough, but we cannot solve the political problems by economic means.

Presented by

The author of What the Arabs Think and co-author of Backdrop to Tragedy, William R. Polk is a member of the center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. As a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation he lived for several years in the Middle East, and this article was written in an American interval before he returned to the area under discussion. More

William R. Polk served in President John F. Kennedy's administration, where he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for much of the Islamic world, including Afghanistan. He later became professor of history at the University of Chicago and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of 17 books including Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran. He is now at work on a book on Afghanistan to be entitled The Cockpit of Asia. His website is

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