When Americans think of their closest allies in the Middle East, Israel tops the list, followed perhaps by Saudi Arabia, with Egypt a distant—and diminishing—third. What’s noteworthy about these countries is that only one of them (Israel) shares America’s ideals as well as its interests. To be sure, there’s a confluence of interests connecting Saudi Arabia and the United States (oil, Iran, regional stability), but the countries are light years apart when it comes to ideals and values. In Egypt, three decades of shared interests with the U.S. have evaporated in a cycle of re-revolution, and the post-Arab Spring era of shared ideals (representative government, political pluralism, the rule of law) proved fleeting. The good news is that Jordan is emerging as an ally that shares U.S. interests and ideals; the worrisome news is that Americans don’t seem to appreciate this old friend in the Middle East.
There are many ways to measure Jordan’s importance to the United States. But the most obvious is Jordan’s role in, and reaction to, the Syrian civil war. For three years, Jordan has stood on the frontlines of this brutal, multi-sided war, serving as a safe haven for thousands of war refugees, a bulwark against extremism and a firewall against the spreading conflagration. As Gen. Joseph Hoar, former CENTCOM commander, concludes, “Jordan has never been more important to the United States and to its regional allies than now…Amman’s calm hand has been among the biggest contributors to regional peace and security.”
“Calm hand” is putting it mildly. It pays to recall that just across the border, chemical weapons are being used, and suicide bombers are being deployed, and towns are being carpet-bombed, and civilians are being strafed. Jordanian border guards have taken fire from Syrian government forces and anti-government forces alike. In fact, Jordanian troops have been killed in spillover fighting. Some Jordanians are being lured into Syria to join the fight—and radicalized in the process.
The only thing more remarkable than Jordan’s restraint in the face of the war next door is its hospitality. The UN estimates there are 550,000 Syrians in Jordan, with hundreds more streaming across the border each day. The biggest refugee camp in Jordan is crammed with more than 80,000 Syrians, as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports. Syrian refugees now account for 10 percent of Jordan’s population. “For a sense of scale,” Hoar explains, “consider 30 million displaced Mexicans crossing into the United States”—in the span of 24 months.
Although the U.S. and Jordan have no formal security treaty binding one to another, U.S.-Jordanian military cooperation is substantial and growing, especially since the onset of fighting in Syria. At least 1,000 U.S. troops are now based in Jordan as part of U.S. Central Command Forward – Jordan. This unit of units includes Army, Marine, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations assets. The most visible elements of American military power inside Jordan are U.S.-manned F-16 fighter-bombers, Patriot air-defense batteries and a makeshift operations center on the outskirts of Amman. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey expects the U.S. protection force to remain in Jordan “several years.”
As The Wall Street Journal has reported, the U.S. and Jordan have collaborated since early in the Syrian crisis on contingencies related to Syria’s WMD arsenal. In fact, Jordanian commanders traveled to the Pentagon in 2012 to map out combined operations to secure Assad’s WMDs.
Of course, U.S.-Jordanian military cooperation began long before the Arab Spring turned bloody in Syria. U.S. military aid began trickling in to Jordan in 1957, as CRS details. Hundreds of Jordanian military officers study in the United States each year, and the two militaries conduct annual and ongoing combined training exercises in Jordan and the U.S. For instance, Eager Lion brings together thousands of troops and almost two dozen allied nations for training in Jordan; and pilots from the Jordanian air force—flying a fleet of 80 U.S. F-16s—have participated in the Red Flag in Nevada.
Ahead of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Amman allowed the U.S. to use secret airbases inside Jordan for deployment of Special Operations personnel and aircraft. According to The Washington Post, “The bases have become the hubs for clandestine U.S. military counterterrorism operations in the Middle East.” And given recent reports about U.S. troops using Jordanian territory to retrain Iraqi commandos to re-defeat a reconstituted al Qaeda, it’s fair to conclude those secret bases will be put to use in the coming months.
When Washington asked for help in Afghanistan and Iraq, Jordan answered by deploying and manning military hospitals in both countries. According to CRS, Jordanian medical teams have treated 500,000 Afghans since 2001. Jordan has trained 2,500 Afghan commandos, 50,000 Iraqi police and security personnel, and scores of Afghan imams in the ways of moderate Islam.
The U.S. sent Jordan $763.7 million in total aid in 2012 and another $663.8 million last year. Still, total U.S. aid to Jordan is paltry compared to U.S. aid packages and defense deals for neighboring nations: Israel receives $3 billion in annual U.S. aid, Iraq netted $4.8 billion in 2013, Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually, and the United States and Saudi Arabia inked a supersized arms deal of $60 billion in 2010-11.
As to shared ideals, Jordan is not a Jeffersonian democracy, but it’s closer than most of its neighbors.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II is the most liberalized monarch in the region—he once appeared on an episode of “Star Trek: Voyager”—and arguably the most legitimate Arab ruler in the eyes of his subjects. Consider how the Arab Spring revolts bypassed Jordan. Jordan recently elected a new parliament, enjoys close relations with Israel and amidst a region-wide wave of anti-Christian persecution, remains an island of religious tolerance. During a moving Christmastime message, Prince Charles called Jordan a “courageous witness to the fruitful tolerance and respect between faith communities.”
In the economic sphere, Jordan is among the most economically free countries in the Arab world, tying for first place in the Fraser Institute’s annual survey. A “globalization index” ranking countries on integration with the world economy and openness to international trade and investment places Jordan in the top 10.
In short, Jordan is one of those nations that both needs and deserves America’s support. America’s troops are up to the task. “In a very volatile region and at a very critical time in their history,” as Gen. Dempsey said late last year, “they can count on us to continue to be their partner.” Let’s hope the American people and their elected officials stay the course—for Jordan’s sake and America’s.