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How American aid supports autocracy in Jordan

Despite what US officials say, the Jordanian Armed Forces are more palace guards than a mighty fighting force.

Reporting | Middle East

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.

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)
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