July 1, 2004
The Abdullah optionBy Olivier Guitta
America has been ignoring a highly promising set of political ideas and institutions, in its rush to establish a democratic republic in Iraq. By doing so, we discount one of the most important lessons of the last century of political turmoil. Radical change often works best when clothed in the garb of tradition.
Three days ago, ahead of schedule, the Coalition handed over power to the newly established Iraqi government. This latter's major task is to prepare the country's elections in 2005 in the midst of daily violence.
This is no easy job given that Iraq is a very complicated place with diverse antagonistic ethnic groups. Among the Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians there is no love lost.
The first central figure of this region was Hussein Ibn Ali, a Hashemite ruler who was in charge of the Arabian peninsula at the beginning of the 20th century. The Hashemites are an Arab dynasty of which the Prophet Muhammad was a member.
During WW I, Hussein was initially allied with the Ottomans and the Germans, but was convinced by T.E. Lawrence, the famous Lawrence of Arabia, to switch camps. So, Hussein allied himself with both the French and British, and intended to form a unified Arab state that would stretch from Syria to Yemen. In the aftermath of the war, the Arabs found themselves freed from the Ottomans, but now under the control of France and Great Britain.
The sons of Hussein were made the kings of Transjordan, Syria and Iraq. However the monarchy was abruptly ended in Syria when the French were given control over that nation. After this, by proclaiming himself King of the Arabs, Hussein was in a direct collision course with Ibn Saud, the other major tribal leader in the region. Ibn Saud militarily defeated Hussein in 1924, and went on to create the current Saudi Arabia in 1932.
But the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq lasted from 1921 to 1958 with Hussein's heirs at the helm. The last King of Iraq was Faisal II, who was very close to his cousin King Hussein of Jordan. They even decided to merge their two kingdoms in February 1958: Faisal II became then the head of the Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. But Faisal II was killed in a coup d'etat on July 14, 1958, which ended the monarchy in Iraq.
With this part of Iraq's history in mind, would it not be a possible and very much a desirable solution to put King Abdullah of Jordan as the new leader of Iraq?
It is clear that Abdullah has a legitimate claim to ruling Iraq because of his family's historical ties to Iraq. Also, the Shias and Sunnis could easily accept him because the Hashemites are descended from both the prophet Muhammad and his son—in—law Ali (a seminal figure in the Shia faith). Thanks to his neutral stance, he would not favor any particular group and therefore could be the ideal leader. He is, like his father King Hussein before him, one of the only moderate voices in the Arab world. He is very well respected in the West and is a good friend of the USA. Furthermore, his country signed a peace treaty with Israel. So the US would get a dear and trustworthy friend in Iraq, and Israel would also de facto be at peace with the new Iraq.
But what kind of regime would Abdullah rule?
The best solution would definitely be a constitutional monarchy, with three semi—autonomous States with clear geographical borders: one for the Shias, one for the Sunnis and one for the Kurds. This would be a fair answer to each group's aspirations, and would not antagonize many. The Kurds, who have been our most faithful allies in the region, are very unhappy (and rightly so) with the current Iraqi Constitution, which does not really recognize their rights for autonomy. This new federation would not be a miracle in the making, but could turn out to be the most agreeable and desirable political organization for Iraq.
Pan—Arabism has held a strong pull on the hearts and minds of many in the region. For a people humiliated by modernity, the glory of a larger political entity has strong appeal. Moreover, the nation—state has shallower roots than empire or Caliphate forms of governance. A Hashemite federation may thus offer substantial psychological and emotional benefits, which would strengthen the fledgling democratic entity.
Is it feasible?
It is definitely not far—fetched. Prince Hassan, Abdullah's uncle, met in London in the summer of 2002 to discuss this option with the INC (Iraqi National Congress). Furthermore, in January 2003, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Jordanian officials acknowledged that King Abdullah would favorably consider an American request to extend the auspices of the monarchy over Iraq.
Obviously, we do not know of the outcome of this suggestion, but by the non—publicity we can guess that it was killed before birth. Why was this idea never mentioned in the postwar discussion of the building of a democratic Iraq?
Maybe Abdullah was not up to the challenge or maybe the State Department and/or the CIA were not very favorable to the initiative? Given the track records of those two organs of state, such opposition should not be despositive.
Unfortunately, the chosen scenario in Iraq right now is not very rosy. There is a strong possibility that the country will plunge into civil war in the next few years. Iraq could then turn into a new Lebanon, where war between ethnic groups constantly raged. Furthermore, coincidentally, a lot of 'actors' present in Iraq today were playing a big role in fomenting turmoil in Lebanon in 1982. Hizbullah, the Shia Lebanese terrorist organization, and Iran, through financial and military support, are behind Al Sadr's militia. Syria, the current ruler of Lebanon, is beyond any doubt helping insurgents kill US troops.
First, it would surely stabilize Iraq, and help establish a democratic political process, supplying symbolic legitimacy and a familiar political form to help the infant regime develop strength. Second, even if it turns out to be only a moderate success, it could affect the Palestinian issue. In fact, Jordan's population is around 75% Palestinian —— King Abdullah's wife is Palestinian —— so would it not be possible to give them a State in this new large Arab federation: Iraq + Jordan+ ?
For the time being, the Abdullah option has been totally ignored, at least publicly. But that may change, if a democratic republic proves difficult to establish in a region where such regimes have never existed.
Nonetheless, a federal form of goivernment, even without Abdullah, should be a top priority, if the US wants to get Iraq right.