What Jordan Wants From Bolton, Pompeo

Experts say the kingdom, a pocket of stability in a volatile region, is looking for signs of continuity from Trump’s new foreign policy team.

President Trump meets with Jordan's King Abdullah II at the Palace Hotel in New York during the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
April 15, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump’s foreign policy team is in the midst of a hawkish transformation.

One week ago, the pugnacious John Bolton—an architect of the Iraq War and cheerleader for preemptive strikes against Iran and North Korea—took over as national security adviser, replacing H.R. McMaster. On Thursday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, the former Republican congressman who is Trump’s nominee to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of State, disputed accusations that he also has a quick trigger finger. Military force is “the last resort,” he tried to assure senators during his confirmation hearing.

“I hope to achieve the president’s policies with diplomacy, rather than sending our young men and women to war,” Pompeo said.

Given the crises in Syria and Yemen, and encroachments by Iranian proxies into Iraq and Lebanon, it’s unsurprising that Trump has chosen to stack his Cabinet with officials known for their hard-line views. However, it’s unclear whether the new appointees will do anything to clarify the United States’s already muddled strategy in the region, and whether they will be interested in addressing the concerns of one longtime ally: Jordan.

When it comes to counterterrorism, Jordan has no shortage of support in Washington. Senators from both sides of the aisle back King Abdullah II, who weathered the Arab Spring in 2011 and has ushered the country through decades of tumult and regional conflict. He’s met with Trump on multiple occasions since the president took office.

Jordan is host to thousands of U.S. military personnel, and it provides key bases for the air campaign against ISIS. “U.S. military advisers and security officials have been assisting Jordan with improving its domestic capabilities for a long time now,” said Alia Awadallah, a researcher at the Center for American Progress.

The entrance of Bolton and, potentially, Pompeo into the foreign policy arena will not appreciably change the U.S.-Jordan relationship, analysts said. The relationship is “small potatoes” compared to other issues, said Aaron David Miller, the Middle East program director at the Woodrow Wilson Center, adding that U.S. policy in the region is “likely to be characterized by continuity, not contrast.”

Although U.S. special-forces operations in Jordan will be scaled back in 2018—by as much as 50 percent, according to Awadallah’s research—other security assistance has remained mostly fenced off from spending cuts. In late March, a joint U.S.–Jordan counterterrorism center opened in Amman.

Still, the constant gyrations in the White House can make long-term planning difficult. “It will make [Jordan] more nervous if they’re not really certain where the administration is going to go,” Awadallah said, “whether that’s in Syria, or Iraq, or in Palestinian peace talks.”

In particular, Jordanian officials are worried about the outbreak of another conflict in the Middle East—a concern that the appointment of Bolton in particular is unlikely to assuage, experts noted.

“He is so often seen as one of the architects of the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003,” said Curtis Ryan, a political science professor at Appalachian State University who specializes in U.S.–Jordanian relations. “Jordanians warned the U.S. against [the Iraq war] repeatedly.”

As a small and cash-strapped country proximate to Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, Jordan has absorbed thousands of refugee flows from neighboring crises. In addition to the roughly 9.4 million Jordanian citizens, the country also hosts more than 2 million Palestinian refugees, over 650,000 Syrian refugees, and roughly 500,000 Iraqi refugees, who pose an enormous financial burden to the cash-strapped and water-scarce nation. In the past 10 years, Jordan’s debt has ballooned from 60 percent of GDP to over 95 percent. On Jan. 8, the government announced it would lift bread subsidies, the first major price hike of its kind since 1996.

“Jordan is fatigued and has reached its maximum carrying capacity, whether in terms of available resources, fiscal space, existing physical and social infrastructure, or capacities of government services,” said Jordanian Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki on April 5. “Without the continued support of the international community, this will negatively impact our overstretched ability to continue providing necessary services to Syrians.”

Given Jordan’s economic woes—and its proximity to a number of regional conflicts—leaders will keep a close eye on whatever Bolton and Pompeo decide to do in Washington. Jordan’s security, after all, is deeply intertwined with U.S. foreign policy. “King Abdullah has, at times, been quite hawkish in his own rhetoric regarding Iran,” Ryan said, “but the king and Jordanian policymakers more generally have toned down that rhetoric in recent months especially, waiting to see if powers like Russia, Turkey, and Iran can bring an end to the war in Syria.”

The last thing Jordanian officials want, Ryan added, “is another war in the region.”

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