Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review: Our Last Best Chance

First off, this has nothing to do with Pennsylvania politics. Apologies for that. But if you are looking for an interesting read on current events, you might enjoy this book.

Some time ago the King Abdullah II of Jordan was on the Daily Show and did an excellent job of both imparting his message and playing along with Jon Stewart’s humor. More recently the Jordanian ambassador, Zeid Ra'ad, was on, talking about the Abdullah’s new book, Our Last Best Chance (Viking, 2011). The king himself had been scheduled to appear but the Arab Spring had taken hold of the region and the king was, in the words of the ambassador, home listening to the people. The ambassador also did a good job of both talking about the book and making jokes – he said if his appearance didn’t turn the book into a bestseller he was likely to become the ambassador to New Jersey.

They were reaching out to the general populace. I was impressed and entertained so I bought the book. It should be said at the start that other than some reading on the Iraq War, I am woefully uninformed of the history and politics of the Middle East, especially the history and borders of Israel. I have friends with ties to differing cultures and strong feelings. The ability to plead ignorance allows me to stay out of arguments. Therefore this overview of the book will focus more on the author’s story than the geopolitical aspects of it – I just don’t know enough to judge the veracity of what is written.

That being said, I enjoyed the book. While many such titles are ghost-written the tone of the book was very similar to the way Abdullah spoke, though granted the Daily Show segment, even the extended online version, is short. Even so, I think it likely that the king played a large role in writing the book. The copyright is given to a private academy the king set up, to provide Jordanian children of diverse backgrounds (boys and girls) the opportunity to attend a school similar to the one the king attended in the U.S. (See “Deerfield in the Desert,” by Nick Paumgarten in the Sept 4, 2006 New Yorker for a description of how the school was set up). Initially I thought the book was written solely in English and intended solely for an American audience but some research showed that it was released in something like eight languages. There are likely to be some variations in wording due to translation but it is probably the same book all around.

What I found most fascinating were the personal insights the king provided. On Sept 11, 2001 he was in the air, flying to the US when his wife called him and told him to turn the plane around and come home, because of the terrorist attacks. Initially he intends to continue on his course but eventually changes course, lands in Canada and then flies home. As a young man serving in the military he was assigned to be a bodyguard for Queen Elizabeth on a state visit to Jordan. He asks his father how far he should go in protecting her and his father tells him to jump in front of the bullets if need be. One of his earlier memories is as a five year old boy, during the 1967 war. He and his brother would carry supplies around their housing compound for the soldiers manning the guns in the garden. They had a great time until their mother saw a picture of them with cigarettes in their mouths standing by the guns. He writes of his years attending Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and wanting to go on to college but instead, on his father’s suggestion, going into the military. Some experience studying at Sandhurst in the UK and some US military inspired him, when he had achieved sufficient rank, to make changes in the Jordanian military. One example is not allowing officers to wear paratrooper insignia if they didn’t make the requisite number of jumps.

As he was growing up his uncle was the Crown Prince and he was not considered heir to the throne. There are also a number of siblings from his father’s three marriages so he was not considered irreplaceable. This allowed him to have a more normal life than he would if he had grown up knowing he would rule some day. He chose a bride for personal rather than dynastic reasons and writes of his and their efforts to strengthen the role of women in Jordanian society.

Even so, he often visited other countries either as part of his father’s security team or part of diplomatic missions. His descriptions of the personalities involved, especially in Korea and Libya, are very interesting. Of particular interest to American readers are the chapters and sections on US policy and leaders, going back to Bill Clinton, through the Bush years, and into the Obama administration. He is forthright in his opinions.

Of course there is a great deal of discussion of the Middle East peace process. He has met with a number of Israeli leaders and government officials, as well as other diplomats and officials throughout the region. I was impressed with efforts such as the Amman Message, which gathered the thoughts of numerous Islamic leaders to set out acceptable behaviors, beliefs and procedures, such as who can set fatwas. This was an effort to separate out terrorists and make it clear that they are operating outside the Islamic faith.

This was, by and large, my first introduction to Jordan and I was left with a positive impression. The book inspired me to do a little more research on my own. Those interested in recent proposed reforms might enjoy “A Decade of Struggling Reform Efforts in Jordan: The Resilience of the Rentier System,” by Marwan Muasher, issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in May 2011.

In any event, I enjoyed the book and hope the ambassador got to keep his job.

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