Ashton, a senior lecturer in the department of international history at the London School of Economics, has previously written on the political dimensions of U.S and U.K. dealings with Gamal Abdel Nasser's brand of Arab nationalism. Now, to write an original biography of Jordan's Hussein (1935-99), he received special permission for "unfettered" access to the king's correspondence.
Given the pace of the narrative, which details the high-speed world of Hussein and the Middle East maelstrom he lived in, events and arguments beg further attention and analysis. The king reigned for forty-seven years, married four times, flew airplanes, and enjoyed driving fast cars in between fighting one war against Israel (1967) and another against Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (1970), having already dealt with other threats such as the Nasserite crises of 1958. The king made peace with Israel in 1994 and proved a reasonably stable ally to the West, transforming the kingdom from a land of Bedouins and Palestinian refugees to a stable and moderate Arab monarchy. Ashton weaves the narrative through these stories in an acceptable but not dazzling manner, leaving the reader to wish for a little more color.
One of the high points of the book is the description of Hussein's role in the Gulf crises and war between 1990 and 1991. Of interest is the correspondence between the king and President George H.W. Bush. The story of how Hussein embraced an increasingly nationalist, Arab-Muslim view is interesting in the light of his meeting with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir before the conflict broke out. In a speech on February 6, 1991, he spoke of his "Palestinian brothers" and the "crime" against the Muslim religion and the Arab nation. This is but one example of the provocative way he spoke to the Arab street even while he was perceived in the West as peaceful, moderate and modern.