Ignatius: Trump can’t take U.S. partner Jordan for granted

Jordan has provided important intelligence and foiled terror plots. But there are new tensions.

By David Ignatius

AMMAN, Jordan — For decades, ground zero in Jordan’s alliance with America has been the headquarters of the General Intelligence Department, with its forbidding black flag fluttering in the breeze at the end of an entry road with the unlikely name, “Street of the People.”

The GID embodied Jordan’s role as America’s special Arab friend. Generations of CIA officers made their bones here running joint operations against Palestinian terrorist groups, al-Qaida and the Islamic State. What the Jordanian service offered was its ability to recruit agents in places where American spies couldn’t go.

The GID remains a potent counterterrorism partner, U.S. officials say, and Jordan is still a key platform for American operations in the region. But there are some new tensions in the relationship, too, which were noted by many Jordanians during a four-day visit here.

Jordan, like other allies with strong military and intelligence services, has a problem balancing guns and butter. Its army and spy service certainly help preserve stability, but they don’t finance Jordan’s large debt. Indeed, it was telling that one of the first subjects mentioned by a top GID official here was Jordan’s urgent need for a financial-assistance pact with the International Monetary Fund.

Jordan has walked a tightrope since the Hashemite monarchy was founded in 1921. But these days, the country is literally surrounded by problems. Its schools and social services are strained by 1.3 million Syrian refugees; a half-dozen of its Arab neighbors are failed or failing states; and there’s tension with longtime patrons in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The situation is unprecedented,” warns a senior Jordanian official. “Events are accelerating, allegiances are changing, and ambiguity is the name of the game.”

American support has been Jordan’s backstop, thanks to bipartisan congressional backing and strong support at the CIA, Pentagon and State Department. That momentum will continue next week (Feb. 13), when the two countries are expected to sign a new “memorandum of understanding” extending U.S. financial aid for five years and perhaps increasing it to $1.5 billion annually from the current $1.275 billion.

Even with some additional U.S. butter, guns remain the core of the relationship. The Pentagon plans to spend what sources say could be more than $300 million to expand a big air base at Muwaffaq Salti in central Jordan and build another one at “H-4,” an outpost near Syria that press reports say may be used for drone operations. Meanwhile, the CIA continues intense intelligence cooperation; GID officials say they disrupted 45 terror plots outside the country last year, mostly in partnership with the agency.

Jordan’s status as America’s BFF in the Arab world faces a surprising new challenge from Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration (with quiet Israeli encouragement) is courting Saudi Arabia’s brash crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. “MBS,” as he’s known, is the glamorous new guest at the American table. Some Jordanians are feeling like the loyal partner whose affections have been forgotten.

MBS is moving into political space long occupied by Jordan. The Saudi leader is trying to repackage the kingdom as a voice of moderate Islam, which has been Jordan’s special mission. He’s styling himself as an Arab change agent, a role championed by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. And MBS is subtly supporting President Trump’s “ultimate deal” on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, despite Jordanian misgivings.

What worries Amman is that Trump’s disruptive diplomacy — symbolized by his decision in December to reverse long-standing U.S. policy and move the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — will cause internal political problems for Jordan, with its large Palestinian population. When Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas denounces Trump’s peace process, Jordan fears it will have to pick up the pieces.

The Trump White House’s ardor for MBS comes at a moment when Jordan’s relations with Riyadh have cooled. A senior Jordanian official cites three key disagreements: The Jordanians didn’t send ground troops to join the Saudi invasion of Yemen three years ago. Jordan also balked at the Saudi campaign against Qatar, perhaps mindful of the 50,000 Jordanians working in Doha. Finally, the Jordanians disagreed with Saudi calls for a legal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, believing that the GID’s covert containment of the Brotherhood was more effective.

It’s easy to take Jordan for granted. Because it has made a solid peace with Israel and an accommodation with the modern, secular world, Jordan sometimes seems to run on autopilot. But if the Hashemite monarchy becomes unglued like so many of its neighbors, it could have disastrous consequences — not least for Israel, next door.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

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