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The King's Shilling

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
May 2011


The revolts that began earlier this year all across the Arab Middle East appear to have caught the U.S. intelligence community unprepared, at least according to complaints from the White House. A new book by the man who served as the CIA's station chief in Jordan for eight years helps explain why.

Jack O'Connell was a career CIA operations directorate official and classic Arabist: his whole career was spent in Arab lands, finally serving as deputy chief of station in Beirut and then leading the station in Amman from 1963 to 1971, encompassing both the 1967 war and 1970's “Black September,” when King Hussein ordered his army to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization forces in Jordan. O'Connell did not then disappear into bucolic retirement but immediately signed on as Jordan's lawyer in Washington and served as a conduit for secret CIA funds to Hussein and his family. Now at an advanced age, he has felt compelled to tell the story of his undying admiration for the king and the many ways in which we Americans let the great man down. He calls Hussein a “deft ruler” and concludes that “what saved him throughout his lifetime Error on was good political antennae.” Yet, in fact, the portrait he paints in King's Counsel is inadvertently grim; Hussein emerges as a serial bungler. The only mystery is how O'Connell and others came to view him as a kind of secular saint by the time of his death in 1999.

Hussein's errors add up. To take only the greatest, he needlessly jumped into the 1967 war, allowed Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser to send one of his generals to command the Jordanian forces, and thereby lost half his kingdom. Even O'Connell acknowledges that “he didn't have to go to war” and that this constituted an “incredibly shortsighted assessment” on the king's part. Similarly shortsighted was Hussein's allowing the PLO to metastasize within his own kingdom and threaten his reign. O'Connell admits that the king's “own army... was furious over the way he had allowed the PLO to take over Amman.”

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