In a recent interview with Jordan’s government-backed broadcaster, America’s top military officer lavished praise on the country’s armed forces.
"We have common interests and common values," said Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "The Jordanian Armed Forces are very professional. They're very capable. They're well led."
Milley’s view represents the most common American line on the Jordanian military, which has long enjoyed a close relationship with the Pentagon. There’s just one problem: It’s dead wrong, according to Sean Yom, a political science professor at Temple University.
Where Washington sees a small-but-mighty army, Yom sees a "glorified garrison force," as he wrote in a chapter of the recent edited volume, “Security Assistance in the Middle East.” The Jordanian military, he writes, is "more accustomed to policing society to maintain authoritarian order at home than undertaking sophisticated operations."
As Yom notes, the regime that the Jordanian military defends has become increasingly autocratic in recent years. King Abdullah recently approved a cybercrime law that would allow the government to jail its citizens for promulgating “fake news” or “undermining national unity” — terms that the law largely leaves undefined. The crackdown on expression comes just three years after the government crushed the country’s teachers’ union, which had previously acted as a primary vehicle for political opposition in Jordan.
So what does the U.S. have to show for its decades of lavish support for Jordan’s military? And what can that tell us about how Washington should approach security aid? RS spoke with Yom to find out. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
RS: The conventional story of U.S. security assistance is that, even though some of the countries that we help are authoritarian in nature, our aid tends to lead to greater respect for democracy, and if it doesn't do that, it at least will strengthen partner militaries. But in your chapter, you describe a different story in Jordan. Can you walk me through that a little bit?
Yom: U.S security assistance is typically justified through the doctrine of "building partner capacity.” There has been a lot of ink spilled on the importance of modernizing the Jordanian Armed Forces and ensuring that it is a capable, coherent and interoperable armed force that can seamlessly work with the U.S. military or conduct operations on its own in the service of defending Jordan, or bolstering regional stability, for instance, by undertaking counterterrorist operations or contributing to peacekeeping missions.
The problem is that there is very little historical evidence that the Jordanian military is actually a capable fighting force, and I think a few key pieces of evidence underlie this. Number one, Jordan really hasn't fought a major armed conflict in a half century. It's undertaken peacekeeping abroad through the moniker of the UN, and it occasionally conducts one-off missions such as its airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria back in 2014. But there is very little evidence on the battlefield that the Jordanian military is what the U.S. would call a capable and competent partner military. The other piece of evidence is that much of Jordan's defense structure has partly been offshored to the United States. The border surveillance system between Jordan and Syria was built by Raytheon Company through U.S. military and economic grants, and much of Jordanian airspace is monitored as closely by the United States as it is by the Jordanians themselves. The significant U.S. military buildup in Jordan is part and parcel of the United States interest in defending the sovereignty of Jordan and ensuring that foreign aggressors — whether they are terrorists or militant organizations or even foreign states — do not penetrate very far into the Hashemite Kingdom.
We don't see a military that is being built to be capable and modernized and independent and combat ready. Instead, the overriding justification — internally at least, seldom mentioned publicly — is that U.S. security assistance in Jordan is designed not to build partner capacity but to ensure political access to the Hashemite monarchy and to lubricate U.S.-Jordanian relations to make sure that this bilateral alliance is smooth and allows both sides to achieve their mutual interests. In Jordan's case, [its interests are] to remain stable, to receive aid and arms from the United States, and to preserve its sovereignty, and in Washington's case, it's to make sure that there is a pro-Western oasis of moderation in the heart of the Near East.
RS: A question that's underlying a bunch of this is whether the monarchy and the system as it exists in Jordan could even continue to exist without American support. To put it bluntly, does U.S. aid underwrite autocracy in Jordan?
Yom: I think it does, but with a few caveats. The first is that, in comparative perspective, Jordan is not unique in being a middle-income country whose autocratic regime needs foreign aid to survive. The other caveat is that I don't necessarily think that U.S. support and aid is the only reason why the current system of government in Jordan is able to endure. It has its own survival mechanisms, whether it is rallying support from certain constituencies in society, such as some tribal communities, or leaning heavily on other partners in the region.
But I will say this: U.S. support may not be the only reason, but it is a major reason why the Hashemite monarchy and its regime has been able to maintain its current political strategy of maintaining power, which is not to democratize or alleviate repression but rather to maintain an authoritarian status quo. And I think U.S. support is also a major reason why the Jordanian leadership has very little incentive to grant meaningful political reforms such as curtailing corruption and granting more democratic freedoms, which clearly a majority of Jordanians desire. And we know this from public surveys. Jordanians are very explicit in what they are unhappy about the current political system, but they also feel that, because the U.S. often refuses to pressure the Jordanian government to grant or concede more of these reforms, they feel that the U.S. is complicit and preserving the authoritarian status quo.
Geopolitically, Jordan plays an important function to U.S. grand strategy as a critical part of its war-making infrastructure in the Middle East, as well as diplomatically a pro-Western oasis or island of stability in the heart of a “shatterbelt” of the Middle East. Because of these factors, Washington has very little problem providing such profuse amounts of military assistance to the Jordanian Armed Forces. Above all else, of course, Jordan abuts Israel. Jordan's role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its primary purpose as a peace partner of Israel validates in the eyes of many American policymakers why they should continue supporting the modernization and the arming of the Jordanian Armed Forces under the guise, of course, of building partner capacity but knowing full well that Jordan is not going to be fighting a war anytime soon.
RS: At some level, you've painted a picture of a big win for U.S. interests here. There's a sense in which America gets a huge plot of land in the middle of a region that it deems vital, and the only downside is that that support doesn't really square with our stated values. But in your article, you had a different conclusion. Can you tell me more about that?
Yom: By helping to maintain [Jordan’s] political infrastructure, the United States is complicit in the continued economic and social stagnation of Jordan. For every dinar that the Jordanian leadership spends on security or military items — money that many Jordanians feel it does not have to spend — the less money there is to spend on, say, social programs or economic development.
If you look at the Jordanian economy, it is astounding how much of a crisis that it has fallen into. We're looking at, right now, 22 to 23 percent unemployment overall, which is probably a vast understatement of the real statistic. We're looking at nearly 50 percent youth unemployment. We're looking at poverty, which is between 25 to 30 percent depending upon which estimate we take as reliable. And this is all in a country that also spends approximately a third of each annual budget on military and security spending. So essentially, what you're looking at when you think about the Jordanian economy today is a wartime economy. The Jordanian government positions itself and maintains an army as if it were about to wage a war it doesn't have to wage, and that has a destructive effect on the economy and often justifies draconian security measures to regulate and police society. The United States, I would argue, is complicit in that arrangement.
Washington has had very similar experiences in the past with other countries where regimes have some kind of deep economic or political crisis, and yet they believe that having a well-armed coercive apparatus is going to immunize them from any sort of domestic unrest or popular overthrow. Now, that may be the case in Jordan, because the future is hard to tell. But that certainly wasn't the case in, say, Iran under the Shah. It wasn't the case in South Vietnam. It wasn't the case in some of our Central American client states in the 1970s and the 1980s.
One of the things I wish U.S. policymakers would reconsider is whether or not the current arrangement is fundamentally in the interest of the Jordanian people. If we define stability as a country having not just a legitimate political system, but a sustainable economy and a relatively satisfied population, then Jordan is failing on some of these key fronts.
History shows us that [this] kind of strategy seldom works, and it's one of the dark consequences that I fear the most in Jordan, since obviously instability in Jordan doesn't help anyone. But the current vision of stability that has encaged itself in the minds of American lawmakers is not one that I think is going to be fruitful over the long term.
Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter. Echols received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle East and North African Studies.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is hosted by his Jordanian counterpart for an Honors Arrival Ceremony in Amman, Jordan, Nov. 24, 2019. (DOD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Chuck Burden/ CC BY 2.0)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.