The passing of King Hussein: `The perfect partner in the diplomatic dance'

Raymond Seitz pays tribute to a sanely artful survivor in the madness of the Middle East
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FOR MANY years in the American State Department, Hussein was known as the "PLK" - the Plucky Little King. Both affectionate and patronising, the nickname revealed a great deal about what Washington policy-makers thought of the Hashemite monarch: he was a sanely artful survivor in the madness of the Middle East.

Americans were drawn to Hussein because he seemed so much the Hollywood image of an Arab prince. Handsome and Sandhurst-straight, the King was also cosmopolitan, shrewd and encouraging, the perfect partner for the diplomatic dance.

I first met him at the Palace in Amman when I was a junior donkey working for Henry Kissinger. Most of the meetings, in keeping with the Secretary of State's style, were tete-a-tete, but periodically the King (not Kissinger) would appear in the American staff room to make sure we were comfortable and well attended. He was a gracious host.

But these attractive personal qualities counted for little in an explosive region where decisions were made on the basis of military power and national wealth, neither of which Jordan possessed. The threat of war or upheaval overshadowed Hussein's entire reign, and the pluck which the King always demonstrated disguised a position that was always vulnerable.

Hussein was a modern, constitutional King in an ancient, transitional society. He could never do anything without looking over his shoulder. He ruled a small nation that was divided geographically and ethnically, and he rightly feared the assassin's bullet. Surrounded by countries many times more muscular that his own, he was acutely aware that any of his neighbours could sweep him aside at the drop of a hat. Hussein's consistent objective was to give none of them an excuse to do so. Let others ramble on about strategy. He would tend to his tactics and hope for dawn.

So, Hussein played for middle-ground advantage. He could never go too far in any direction. Over his years of experience, he developed a masterful instinct for balance, bobbing and weaving among Syrians, Iraqis and Egyptians. He worried that an American embrace would be the kiss of death. He carried out secret contacts with the Israelis but could never expose himself publicly as a Sadat-like peacemaker. He would tell the British one thing and the Americans another.

Hussein may have miscalculated during the Gulf War in 1990-1991 when he aligned himself with Saddam Hussein. But he had made his assessment carefully and while he may not have been right, he was certainly safe.

In the end, Hussein saw a semi-peace emerge in the old Trans-Jordan, though a final settlement remains fraught with danger. As the senior surviving statesman in the region, his best insurance policy became his own stature, and it is this which his heir will find so hard to duplicate.

Raymond Seitz was American Ambassador to Britain from 1991 to 1994.