Leading Article: The king in the middle

AS THE "international community" mourns the passing of King Hussein of Jordan, it is worth remembering that there is no area where the great powers have made more mischief this century than what used to be called the Levant: the lands between the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean and the valleys of Mesopotamia. It began during the Great War, when the British made incompatible promises to Arabs and Zionists, the cranky TE Lawrence helping to whip up Bedouin passions while the government passed the Balfour Declaration.

Whatever the sympathy for the Jews that all decent people feel, there was something capricious about promising a Jewish homeland in a Holy Land where the Jews were then a tiny minority. The caveat that this should be done without prejudicing "the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" looks both self-serving and absurd.

After the war, the victorious powers carved up the collapsed Ottoman Empire, creating new and often unstable principalities under what were supposed to be loyal chieftains. Part of the detritus produced by these machinations was called Trans-Jordan. A rump of what had become British Palestine under the somewhat hypocritical guise of a League of Nations mandate was first separated from the rest of Palestine west of the Jordan, and then became an independent Hashemite kingdom after the next world war.

This is the kingdom which King Hussein ruled for 46 years. At the hour of his death, it is both fitting and true to say that Hussein was as good a ruler of his kind as could be expected in the circumstances, indeed rather better. Jordan has flourished, at least by the standards of the region, and its people are better-off than most of their neighbours. Hussein himself was both adroit and lucky, and the sheer length of his reign wildly against the odds. He became king in 1952, the year after King Abdullah was assassinated, and the chances of Hussein sharing the same fate were always high.

He learned his lessons the hard way, not least that Israel was impossible to defeat by physical force, and that fanatical Palestinian rejectionism was a dead end. He was ruthless in suppressing Palestinian threats to his authority, and much more successful in doing so than he had been in fighting the Jewish state. He was reviled as a traitor to his people when he made peace with Israel, embraced Israeli politicians as friends, and wept at the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin.

It is easy to understand the feelings of huddled Palestinian refugees in Jordan as they contemplated Hussein's manoeuvrings, the more so if they read the Israeli press, quoted by Robert Fisk on page 16, preening itself on the way Israel has generously defended a Jordanian state "founded on part of the Jewish homeland". To think that Ariel Sharon is now Israeli foreign minister - a man who has publicly advocated permanent Israeli annexation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem and the expulsion of their Arab inhabitants to a "Palestine" east of the Jordan - is quite terrifying.

And yet with all his deviousness, and his undoubted self-interest, Hussein had grasped something most of the Palestinian leadership had not, nor most other Arab leaders. "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien": life is not a contest between pure good and evil but between greater and lesser evils. Too many Palestinians dreamed of driving "the Zionist entity" into the sea, which was not only bloodthirsty but fantastical. One of the honourable points that can be made in reply to Arabist arguments is that the energies devoted to scheming against Israel would have been better used improving the lot of the Arabs themselves. All we can hope for in any political conflict is a pragmatic compromise, not the best remedy but the least bad. That was something Hussein of Jordan grasped. He was barely a "great man", but he was much better than most of what Edward W Said has called the "dangerously inept and quixotic rulers" who have presided over a "consistently futile, wasteful and tragic" Arab world.

Meanwhile the meddling of the outside world remains clumsy and misconceived. The Americans in particular are taking longer to come to terms with reality than any serious power should. Hussein was one of the moderate Arab leaders who begged Washington not to bomb Iraq again, lest a spasm of rage throughout the Arab world should topple him and even the Saudi monarchy. In the event death has come to Hussein in his bed. The best way of commemorating his remarkable reign would be to desist from further meddling which is likely to have perverse consequences. The worst way would be to make his successor turn Jordan into a base for "destabilising" Saddam Hussein: it is by no means sure that the Iraqi regime would be destabilised sooner than the Jordanian.