The world rightly reacted with horror last week to the immolation of Jordanian pilot Mouath al-Kasaesbeh at the hands of ISIS. The execution has, at least for the time being, united Jordanians against the Islamic State, and with their hereditary monarch, King Abdullah II.
That the Jordanian king would wrap himself in his country's flag during a time of national tragedy should come as no surprise; that so many American pundits would lap up the kingdom's rhetoric is, on the other hand, a little puzzling.
Several websites have published fawning listicles and photo galleries in recent days depicting the charming and media-savvy dynast in combat gear. These media outlets have lauded his tough talk and pledges of revenge against ISIS. He's "kind of a badass," according to BuzzFeed; a "warrior king," says Business Insider.
Conservative TV and radio personality Sean Hannity took it one step further, posing the following question to his Twitter followers:
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) February 5, 2015
Everyone loves a man in uniform, but such effusive praise for Jordan's king is problematic. Abdullah is an unelected authoritarian with near total control over Jordanian politics. The king can dissolve parliament at his pleasure, and controls every arm of force in the country, including the highly revered (and feared) General Intelligence Department (GID). Freedom of speech and association are tightly controlled in the country, and criticizing the crown is a criminal offense.
Moreover, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a somewhat enigmatic nation with little ability to exist on its own without the economic and military aid of several external benefactors. It is a nearly landlocked country with few natural resources, massive unemployment (very high youth unemployment), and a destabilizing refugee crisis. As many as two-thirds of the country is on the royal dole, and the government has been able to buttress its unhealthy economy thanks, in part, to the billions of dollars in aid received from the region's sheikdoms.
And whomever Jordan cannot buy or jail, it exports. The regime, until recently, has held a rather passive attitude toward its own citizens who went off to find jihad in other environs. The country is one of the largest contributors of foreign fighters to the civil war in Syria, and at least 1,500 Jordanians are believed to be fighting alongside Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. Sending its problems elsewhere grants Jordan the liberty to strike at its own radicals in a remote setting with military hardware provided by Washington. Put another way: The U.S. is essentially underwriting Jordan's ability to freely bomb less desirable Jordanians.
And while it's clear that the barbaric execution of Lt. Kasaesbeh has opened up the country's eyes to the troubles brewing next door, it remains unclear if the kingdom has learned much from this horrific act. Like the rest of the Arab world, Jordan's prisons have long served as a recruiting ground for radicals and jihadists, and a recent report by BuzzFeed notes that the country has already begun to target and isolate Islamists in its prisons. Jordan will, however, remain a tinderbox so long as it continues, at the behest of Gulf monarchies, to conflate all of political Islam with the likes of ISIS.
But Jordan's propensity to lump all Islamism together might explain much of the recent hagiography. After all, Abdullah is precisely the kind of Arab leader who appeals to Western sensibilities: Smart, stylish, and secularly educated, the king's most comforting quality may be the skepticism he shares with many outside observers of his own peoples' ability to self-govern. His political foil of choice — the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front — has a tendency to shoot itself in the foot, which suits His Majesty (who once referred to the Brotherhood as a "Masonic cult") just fine.
And while his bravado appeals to a press and policy world that often fetishizes tough talk and photo ops, there's little that is truly imitable, or even sustainable, about the Hashemite Kingdom. King Abdullah II is adept at factional politics — balancing tribe against tribe, and west versus east. As both a beachhead against Mideast radicalism and a safe haven for the region's displaced, the king retains his relevance through the intimation of what his absence might entail. His commodity is crisis.
Stripped bare of such pretense, Abdullah remains the pro-Western ruler of a poor, restive country that is very skeptical of Western machinations, and deeply critical of Israel. The king's tough talk may belie these tough realities for now — but for how much longer?