Mar 18 2010

Biden’s Amman Meeting

Published by at 2:03 am under Articles,Jordan


It began with a short press release issued by the US embassy in Amman late last Thursday and has since mushroomed.

The 20 words given about the topic were: “Vice President Biden met with civil society representatives to discuss preparations for the upcoming Jordanian elections and ongoing domestic reforms.”

No details about who among the hundreds of civil society representatives met the senior US officials, and no other information.

Attempts to get the US embassy to divulge the names of the attendees were politely refused by the justification that that was not standard US policy.

When a daily newspaper reporter tracked down one of the participants, he said that there was a gentlemen’s agreement not to discuss the details of the meeting. If there is ever a signal for the press to jump all over a story, this was it. It was said that the meeting was secret, its attendees were unknown and who knows what was concocted. Just the yarn that conspiracy authors love to knit. The story was front page in an Arabic newspaper on Friday, with the headline calling the meeting a “grave interference”. Within a few days, almost every columnist had his crack at this story; after all, with the US silent and the participants honouring the so-called gentlemen’s agreement, there would be no one to dispute even the wildest of claims.

Naturally, some of these claims focused on some type of Israeli-sponsored conspiracy that Biden brought with him, which focuses on the upcoming elections (conspiracy writers were able to use the words of the press release to build on) in which the Palestinian refugee problem will be miraculously resolved by empowering these refugees within Jordan, and that would close a troublesome chapter in the negotiations.

The US embassy finally spoke out, saying that the meeting was not secret, that participants were not asked to remain silent, that the Jordanian government is aware and approved of the participants who were from a long list of people given to the vice president’s staff, and that a small group was chosen because of time constraints and the desire of the vice president to go beyond polemics.

A senior American source detailed the two issues that dominated the discussions: the mechanics of the upcoming elections, which King Abdullah wants free and transparent, and how non-governmental organisations can help His Majesty’s wishes to be translated on the ground. One participant confirmed what the US source noted that in addition, the Arab-Israeli conflict took a major part of the discussion.

Jordanian advocate and human rights activists Eva Abu Halaweh is said to have focused on the Gaza siege and the situation in Jerusalem. Ironically, the issue of external interference in local politics has been the demand of most genuinely democratic forces the world over. American officials are blamed if they meet only with the ruling powers without giving a voice to the civil society. In Jordan, it seems that the same forces that are fighting for reform and genuine power sharing refuse to discuss such issues with foreign powers, especially the US. America’s foreign policy trumps everything else in countries like Jordan where local human rights activists expect all meetings with US officials to focus solely on the Palestinian issue.

The Obama administration does have a problem in this area. Barack Obama came into the White House on a strong campaign against the Bush-Cheney doctrine. Former president George W. Bush and his neoconservatives claimed that they militarily unseated Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in order to introduce democracy to the region. And while Obama has been staunchly opposed to his predecessor’s foreign policies, especially in the Middle East, his administration does not wish to let down democratic forces and the desire for democracy of peoples the world over. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a special speech outlining the US approach to issues like human rights and democratic values. US officials have regularly met with human rights activists and opposition figures in countries like Indonesia, Russia, Egypt and Pakistan.

America’s financial support to Jordan is substantial. It was in the spirit of proudly presenting the robust Jordanian civil society that the US embassy pushed for the meeting with the vice president. A negative reaction to this reflects Jordan as a reactionary country rather than a progressive, liberal one.

This is not the image Jordan wants its visitors to see. The Jordanian civil society is clearly not united, nor does it speak the same tongue. In other countries, civil society leaders would go to the press as soon as they completed a meeting with a senior foreign leader.

The reluctance of the individuals who met with Biden to speak out reflects that something is wrong in this equation. Either the American choices need to be revisited or these individuals don’t deserve to be considered true civil society leaders.

If the US wants to have an effective role in Jordan, American officials may wish to rethink their criteria for choosing who meets with senior foreign officials. They need to have a proactive policy regarding the dissemination of their points of view and to be conscious of the deep suspicion of influential (though not numerically large) sections of the Jordanian political map.

As Obama has said repeatedly, the US needs to understand the different countries and their need to formulate democratic reform according to their unique situation. A small political minority should not be allowed to hijack the reform process.

Any reform in Jordan must include major political forces. The Biden meeting flop has shown that the sensitivities of the Jordanian political debate must be taken seriously, especially in regards to interaction between foreign guests and local political leaders and activists.

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