Headline after headline has tracked the progress of reform in Iraq, in Egypt, in Lebanon, among the Palestinians. And yet, we’ve heard nothing about Jordan—one of our key allies in the region—recently. Should we have? In a word, yes. Over the past few weeks the Jordanian government has cracked down on the press, the police have broken up demonstrations in the street, and the executive and legislative branches are engaged in a deadlock over whether to ban political activity among Jordan’s professional associations. Freedom is taking a few giant steps back. And yet, yesterday, when Jordan’s King Abdullah visited Washington, nothing was said. The president offered only platitudes: “His Majesty leads a great country in the midst of a part of the world that is changing, changing for the better.” And the press corps, aside from Peter Jennings, didn’t bother asking any tough questions on the issue. As Abu Aardvark describes it:
Not a word about the temporary laws, the struggle over the professional associations, the crackdown on political opposition, or anything else. Not a question, nor a cautious word of concern for the political parties, professional associations, and civil society activists protesting in the streets and fighting in parliament. You’d never know that Jordanian civil society feels under siege and that the battle is heating up. You wouldn’t know that Jordanian protestors are trying to adopt Lebanese and Egyptian style tactics – waving the national flag, peaceful protests, using the language of democracy and freedom. Instead, just a full endorsement of King Abdullah’s decidely illiberal and anti-democratic program of promoting economic reform and deferring democracy.
Now it’s true that Jordan isn’t the most repressive country in the Middle East, in the sense that dissidents are more likely to lose their jobs or have their passports confiscated than get beaten across the feet with thick cables. (Though there’s still plenty of torture to go around.) But Jordan’s not a democracy by any stretch, and one of the main impediments here is King Abdullah, who often rules by fiat over a dysfunctional parliament. President Bush had the perfect opportunity to press Abdullah on political reform yesterday, to urge him not to step back but to go forward with the promising “decentralization” platform announced by the king in January. But by all accounts, Bush did not.
This may have been because President Bush had Israel-Palestine on his mind. It’s worth noting that those professional associations the Jordanian government wants to restrict are largely controlled by Islamists, and increased political participation on their part could scuttle Jordan’s steady support for the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Meanwhile, it’s also potentially true that rapid reform in Jordan could destabilize the country, though this is even more true in places like Syria, where Bush has called loudly for reform. And that’s part of the problem. The president’s gentle touch with Jordan only fuels the perception that the U.S. demands reform solely from its enemies—in other words, that democracy-promotion is just power politics by other means, rather than an actual, serious agenda.